Marc Stengel, Thu, 2 Feb 2006 08:00:00 PDT
"This, too, shall pass," must be the consolation phrase uttered by SUV-makers of all stripes these days. When it takes at least three years for new products to emerge from the planning pipeline, who can blame automakers for launching new, thirsty SUVs at that very inopportune moment when fuel pipelines are choking shut?
There's nothing for it but to soldier on. With heads held high, and with nary an acknowledgment of adversity, a trio comprising Pontiac, Suzuki and Hummer have brand-new SUVs for 2006. There is, moreover, nothing like a makeover to brighten the mood; and perhaps that explains the cheerful insouciance attending Pontiac's debut of the Torrent as a re-skinned Chevy Equinox; Suzuki's intro of a completely revised Grand Vitara; and Hummer's piggy-backing its new H3 upon the Chevy Colorado pickup truck.
There are plenty of folks who want to get away from it all, and now there's a Hummer for them too. That's the best way to make sense of this "me-too" H3 version of the Hummer H2 which is itself a "me-too" version of the military's HumVee fighting vehicle.
Trail-busting is the H3's forte. Four underbody skid plates armor the powertrain against obstacles that a lofty 9.1-inch ride-height can't clear. A fully locking rear differential combines with low-gear mechanicals to deliver a 69:1 crawl ratio. H3's approach angle is 40 degrees, departure angle 37 degrees and "over-the-hump" breakover angle 25 degrees. These are awesome off-road credentials.
But on the road, the H3 is a bear. That's what a lot of folks desire, mind you-looking like a paramilitary bear on civilian roads. But this particular bear is short on finesse. It weighs 4,700 pounds, which taxes the 3.5-liter twin-cam inline-five making 220 hp and 225 foot-pounds. Mileage is only 16 mpg/city, 19 mpg/highway as a result, and passing acceleration on highways and hills is laborious.
Inside, the H3 is boxy, but short on cargo space. With capacity ranging from 29.5 to 55.7 cubic feet, it's the smallest hauler of the trio featured here-but, by a long shot, the most expensive. From a base price of $28,935, an H3 decked with options rises quickly to $38,060, as-tested. That's a lot of moolah in these fuel-extortionate times-enough to put this paramilitary bear on the defensive.
"At last!" is what industry-watchers are exclaiming about Pontiac's decision to jettison its Aztec monstrosity in favor of the shapely new Torrent. Indeed, the Torrent "crossover" SUV succeeds solely for not being anything like the Aztec and so finally gives Pontiac dealers a viable-albeit tardy-rival to Ford's Escape, Hyundai's Santa Fe and, yes, Suzuki's Grand Vitara.
The Torrent is a mix of tradition and innovation. Its 3.4-liter V6 features tried-and-true pushrods instead of overhead cams. It's a workhorse engine (made in China, mind you), and it produces 185 horsepower and 210 foot-pounds of torque. It is torque, in fact, that qualifies Torrent for a 3,500-pound tow rating and nearly 1,300 pounds of payload capacity. Mileage, however, is but middling fair at 19 mpg/city, 24 mpg/highway.
Acceleration is lively, steering is light and precise, and spring rates compromise between comfy soft and sporty stiff. The model tested here incorporated front-wheel-drive, whereas an all-wheel-drive powertrain is also available. It remains a curiosity, however, why this Torrent/Equinox platform persists with dated front disk/rear drum brakes, albeit with standard anti-lock.
Inside, Torrent is spacious for five, and it boasts cargo versatility ranging from 32.2 to 68.6 cubic feet. Particularly handy are the storage bins and an optional, adjustable cargo shelf to accommodate different loads and shapes.
For a base-price of $22,400, Torrent is attractively priced, but options take their toll. As tested, the Torrent evaluated here stickered to $27,540, effectively taking it out of entry-level consideration. Torrent does, however, go some way towards restoring Pontiac as the standard bearer for sporty, affordable performance within the GM fold.
Once upon a time, Suzuki and GM collaborated on compact SUVs, and Vitara and Tracker were the lackluster results. No more. With the total makeover of the Grand Vitara, Suzuki proves it's all grown up as an automaker and now can fly solo.
This is not to say that the 2006 Grand Vitara positively flies, although it does muster 185 hp from only 2.7-liters of V6. As for torque, its 184 foot-pounds puts it at a disadvantage to Torrent; and acceleration zippiness suffers as a result-but only slightly. What's curious, however, is that the smaller Grand Vitara (both its engine and overall size) only rates 19 mpg/city, 23 mpg/highway, thanks presumably to all-time all-wheel-drive friction losses and despite the efficiency of double-overhead-cam engine architecture.
Grand Vitara, though, shines as a value. Although available for under $20,000, the model tested here was a top-of-the-line four-wheel-drive version with the complete luxury "works"-all for just $24,388, as-tested. All-independent suspension combine with 17-inch wheels and four-corner disk brakes to create a first-rate handling feel. Six airbags protect front and rear occupants. A split-folding rear seat reveals cargo space ranging from 23.8 to 67.3 cubic feet.
Auto climate-control and an XM Satellite-ready audio system add to the allure, but the best gimcrack is Smartpass keyless operation. With a radio-transmitting keyfob anywhere on your person, there's never a need to use a key with the Grand Vitara. Push an exterior door button, it unlocks. Twist a knob, and the engine starts then stops when you twist again. Press a door button upon exiting, and everything locks.
If "royalty on a budget" exaggerates the charms of Suzuki's all-new compact SUV, a buyer could do worse than style himself Grand Duke of Vitara behind the wheel of this smart, affordable contender.
4-door, 5-pass.; 3.4-liter OHV V6; FWD, 5-sp. auto; 185 hp/210 ft.-lbs.; 19 mpg/city, 24 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 32.2-68.6 cu. ft.; towing: 3,500 lbs.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension, disc/drum ABS brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/CD/XM audio, 16-in. wheels, 60/40 split rear seatbacks w/ rear cargo shelf; base price: $22,400; as-tested: $27,540
4-door, 5-pass.; 2.7-liter DOHC V6; 4WD, 5-sp. auto; 185 hp/184 ft.-lbs.; 19 mpg/city, 23 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 23.8-67.3 cu. ft.; towing: 3,000 lbs.; std. equipment: 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/CD/XM audio, 17-in. wheels, Smartpass keyless operation; as-tested: $24,399
4-door, 5-pass.; 3.5-liter DOHC inline-5 w/ vvt exhaust; 4WD, 4-sp. auto; 220 hp/225 ft.-lbs.; 16 mpg/city, 19 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 29.5-55.7 cu. ft.; towing: 4,500 lbs.; std. equipment: front ind. suspension, 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/CD/XM audio, 16-in. wheels, fog lamps; base price: $28,935; as-tested: $38,060