The Suzuki Grand Vitara, while the top of the Japanese company's mostly economy-minded SUV line, might not seem like the most appropriate candidate for being tricked out as a Baja-destroying, off-road monster ... but you'd be surprised.
In other parts of the world where Tahoes and Hummers are not ubiquitous, the venerable Grand Vitara is seen not only as a pretty premium backcountry-worthy machine, but one compatible with a wide range of aftermarket tweaks.
Subsequently, when I got a private test of an especially well-tweaked GV customized by Australia's ARB Airlocker Inc. company, I was quite impressed and found it to be one of the more fun vehicles I've driven off the pavement.
This particular Suzuki was fitted with front and rear Old Man Emu coil springs (oh, you Aussies), a trick front wing with a winch-compatible bull bar, plus gigantic IPF sport lights. More importantly, they'd also wedged - quite literally - a set of nearly square-edged B.F. Goodrich Baja Champion off-road tires, 245/70R 17s, onto the Vitara's slightly lifted wheels.
The resulting upgrade (less than $2K, minus the rubber) turns the feisty Vitara into a venerable little trail-buster, with only a couple of minor issues.
This is mostly because the standard V6-powered GV is a nicely appointed, four-door SUV with 230 horsepower and 213 lb. ft. of torque, a reasonably roomy interior and a gentle but capable gait. It's also rated at 23 mpg highway.
Perched on those massive tires and considerably softened by the ARB springs, I was quite impressed by how smooth and adaptable even the on-road ride was (no ugly bouncing or ungainly meandering like one of those Monster Trucks). Hell, it was more comfortable than the Corvette I drove the day before, though the high-speed cornering is obviously a little more precarious.
Off-road, the Grand Vitara turned into one of the best vehicles I've ever driven on rain-rutted, gouged-out, gravely gunk, my test route being the long and totally unpopulated Rampart Range road that skirts the I-25 corridor from Castle Rock to Monument.
GV-plus sucked up the ruts, the exposed shale, the sandy sludge and even miles of washboard tramline nastiness that would have torn the doors off of a regular automobile. The steering remains flat, the bounce was minimal and controlled, even over washbasin-sized ruts, and I was able to maintain a speed that was entirely Baja-worthy.
Unfortunately, this particular GV really was a show car, conceived for this spring's Overland Expo in Arizona and while they got nearly everything right, the tires are so huge that they left a less-than-an-inch clearance gap behind the fronts and in front of the rears.
Consequently, really aggressive rock-climbing was not on the agenda; a true pro mod job would require a bit of tinsmithing on the wheel wells and maybe a few more inches of lift to get the right clearance.
Show car also means show car decals and ... I did feel a bit like the main character in some sort of Outback survival reality series, as a result. You can equip your version however you'd like.
Grand Vitara's interior remains pleasant, with a pop-up navigation system on the dash , good air conditioning, a decent stereo (and Bluetooth that will display your text messages), though the totally flat-bottomed seats started to flatten out my bottom after an hour off the road