Suzuki goes for gold with Grand Vitara 

Off the floor

Off the floor

Recently, in the midst of the Missouri Ozarks, Suzuki offered journalists a sneak peek at the ’99 Grand Vitara. The appearance of an all-new mini-sport/utility was the obvious big news, of course; but oddly enough, it was the vehicle’s front suspension that made the greatest impression on me. There, on the banks of riffling Dogwood Creek, Suzuki’s technical team revealed a striking cutaway chassis displaying an ingenious MacPherson-type independent front suspension but with an important difference. Instead of inserting the shock absorber strut through a coil spring according to traditional MacPherson dictates, Suzuki has located the Grand Vitara’s front coils off to the side and seated them into forged lower A-arms. There, each spring sits poised in a slight arc; the ready implication is enormous wheel travel on which the vehicle’s supple ride and nimble handling depend.

It isn’t just an engineer’s esoteric fancy that accounts for my fascination with the Grand Vitara’s front suspension. It is also a recognition of the bold irony that such technical novelty up front would pair with an avowedly old-fashioned live, or solid, axle in the rear to deliver a combination of stability and agility atypical of this class of mini off-roader. In its concerted attempt to make a strong impact upon the ever more crowded SUV market, Suzuki is quite literally putting its best foot forward.

For example, not only does the independent front suspension contrast with the solid axle arrangement at the rear, but also the front wheels wear vented disk brakes of generous 12.2-inch diameter while the rear wheels make do with 8.66-inch diameter drums. I can attest, however, that these two suggestions of split personality, front-and-rear, belie the Grand Vitara’s actual performance. Suzuki’s rear axle, with its 5-link geometry and Panhard rod, gives the lateral stability that too many mini-sport/utes lack, with their skittish four-wheel independent riggings. And the disk-drum brake combination, especially when equipped with optional anti-lock circuitry, provides all the stable stopping power necessary for such a relatively lightweight, short-wheelbase vehicle. As my corroborating Exhibit A, I respectfully submit the fact that I managed to transform a surprise left-hand turn off a mountain highway into an unruffled “phew!-I-made-it” maneuver from about 60 miles an hour.

At the moment, the American Suzuki Motor Corporation is rehearsing its own “phew!” of pleasant surprise, with which it hopes to christen the Aug. 28 launch of the Grand Vitara. Industry watchers, of course, will recognize Suzuki’s decade-long presence in the SUV background as manufacturer of Sidekick/Tracker and X-90 models that wear or have worn Chevrolet, Geo, and Suzuki badges. Having endured a media feeding frenzy in the late ’80s that sunk the ill-fated Samurai, Suzuki has kept its head below the hedges for much of this decade, waiting vainly for its vindication in the courts and in engineering journals to attract even a fraction of the publicity that once threatened ruin. Now, as it dawns upon the auto industry that mini-sport/utilities represent the last under-exploited grub stake in the SUV gold rush, Suzuki is determined to charge to the head of the pack aboard an ambitiously designed and aggressively marketed Grand Vitara.

Suzuki’s vice president for sales and marketing, Gary Anderson, acknowledges his rivals in the form of Toyota’s RAV4, the Honda CR-V, the Subaru Forester, and the Isuzu Amigo. “Just the same,” he suggests, “this segment of the SUV market is unsettled compared to the compact and full-size categories. We’re of the opinion that consumers don’t really know this segment yet or understand all of its implications. And that works to our advantage.”

To underscore this point, Suzuki tech guru Bob Kasai reminds auto writers that the Toyota, Honda, and Subaru mini-SUV candidates all derive from cars Celica, Accord, and Legacy models, respectively. By contrast, the Grand Vitara is all truck: a stiff, box-section ladder frame surmounted by a rigid unibody cabin. With an eye toward serious off-roaders instead of foul-weather sometimers, the Grand Vitara mates a twin-cam V6 with 155 horsepower to a rear-drive powertrain that can shift on demand into he-man four-wheel-drive. There’s none of this all-time, all-wheel-drive stuff for merely moderate conditions, thank-you very much.

Tackling the SUV design challenge from a truck perspective accounts for a number of Suzuki’s claimed advantages, particularly in terms of strength and durability. This is not meant, however, to imply the harsh driving experience that one might expect. Indeed, Suzuki uses tuned hydro-elastic engine mounts to isolate engine vibrations away from the frame, and the unibody cabin is itself further isolated from road and engine noise by a series of eight “double-donut” rubber body mounts. A nicely upholstered cabin seats five in leggy comfort, both fore and aft. Boxy rear cargo from which the spare tire has been banished to the outside of the side-hinged rear door swallows 22.5 cubes with the rear seats in place. Fold them down, and you double your haulage to 44.6 cubic feet.

During highway travel from Springfield, Mo., to Dogwood Canyon Nature Park near the Arkansas border, the Grand Vitara savored the fast sweepers. It whipped into flip-flop directional changes tolerably well too thanks presumably to that long-travel suspension, with its tuned springs and dampers. Off-roading along rough, winding chert trails, the Grand Vitara’s front suspension soaked deflections caused by rocks and ruts with nary an adverse effect on directional control. If occasionally the solid rear axle hopped around a corner or two during some lively downhill cannonballing, there always seemed to be enough steering control to make the necessary corrections in a hurry.

Ironically or at least contrary to an enthusiast’s intuition the Grand Vitara’s optional four-speed automatic delivered the more enjoyable driving experience overall. On the highway, its shifts were seamless and precise, even when kicking down during a steep ascent. Off-road, it was enough simply to downshift into second and leave it there for the duration of a six-mile lap of long inclines, steep descents, and water crossings. By contrast, the ratios of the five-speed manual seemed ill-matched for the relatively “peaky” or high-rpm power curve of the Grand Vitara’s 2.5-liter V6. Although I’d like to flatter myself that I never made a manual shift I didn’t need, the combination of Grand Vitara’s five-speed and the Ozark Mountain terrain found me constantly on one side or the other of the engine’s powerband, with the torquey “sweet spot” always just beyond reach.

Until Suzuki dealers get their first glimpse of the Grand Vitara during the second week in August, marketing boss Anderson is playing mum on price. “It will be competitive,” is all he’ll allow for now. That suggests the two- and four-wheel-drive Vitara line (ultimately to include 4-cylinder Vitaras in two- and four-door versions alongside the four-door V6 Grand Vitaras) will span a $14,000 to $24,000 range. By releasing the Grand Vitara first, however, it’s obvious that Suzuki intends to put its best foot forward in attempting to leap an even more important span: from quiet back marker to conspicuous front-runner in the soon-to-be rambunctious mini-SUV marketplace.

Almost all-American sports car

As Chevy’s Bowling Green Corvette facility bucks GM’s shutdown trend this week and resumes manufacture of America’s only homegrown sports car, company spokespeople are playing coy about their sources of formerly depleted auto components. Industry analysts report that British and Japanese parts are being substituted for GM-made ones, supplies of which have been exhausted by the spate of nationwide plant closures. Finally a world-class sports car indeed.

Off-again, on-again off-roader

First, there was word last fall that Land Rover would introduce its popular European mini-SUV, the Freelander, to the U.S. market; then company owner BMW called the whole thing off. Last week, the trade paper Automotive News reported that the Freelander was back on track for a U.S. intro in model year 2000. As the mini-sport/utility niche-within-a-niche fills rapidly with little-bitty 4x4s (including, of course, the very Suzuki Grand Vitara under review above), Land Rover promises an “entry-level” craft with a 2.5-liter V6 and a likely cost of under $35,000.

Doors of presumption

Speaking of off-again, on-again, there’s a fan site on the Internet that’s predicting Saturn coupes will become three-door models in model-year ’99. When you can log onto it, Saturnalia The Saturn Enthusiasts’ Site, http://saturn-albuquerque.com/saturnalia, is reporting on no particular authority that the SC1 and SC2 coupes will grow passenger-side third doors, à la recent pickups. Why give credence to a source that loudly proclaims it is “♦NOT♦ the Saturn corporate site!”? Well, for starters, it was only two weeks ago that “Off the Floor” gleaned news of three-door plans for Buick’s aging Riviera coupe from the much better credentialed enthusiast magazine AutoWeek.

“Buy ’em,” they said...and we did

After reading a fascinating study of automotive advertising in the July 20 issue of Automotive News, it’s hard not to conclude that consumers will most often buy what automakers tell them to buy. Citing 1997 figures, reporter R. Craig Endicott suggests that the more an automaker advertises a particular model, the more sales are likely to grow in proportion. A notable example is Cadillac’s Catera, advertising for which grew 162 percent last year alongside sales growth of 1,676 units in ’96 to 25,411 in ’97. Toyota, meanwhile, increased total ad spending almost 16 percent last year and watched Camry become North America’s best-selling car with sales growth of 10.5 percent, while sales of its 4Runner SUV grew 29 percent and those of the RAV4 mini-SUV grew 19 percent. Top spending for an individual model was $148.8 million for Honda’s Accord, which eked a mere 0.6-percent sales gain. As if to defy the trend that buoyed virtually all other models, Nissan spent a second-highest total of $126.7 million to advertise the ’97 Altima, only to watch sales slip 2.3 percent.

Dealer news and other views are invited via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com. Or by fax at (615) 385-2930.

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