WHISTLER VILLAGE, British Columbia -- Steep rock-studded grades on forest trails in Garibaldi Provincial Park of Canada's British Columbia serve as a field track to test the dirt-clawing traction competence for a new version of Grand Vitara, the pint-size sport-utility vehicle from Suzuki of Japan.
This stylish wagon, cast on a new unibody structure for 2006 with class-leading safety features aboard plus the option of a multi-mode four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction mechanism, delivers strong torque from the standard six-pack powertrain.
It scampers up precipitous slopes pitched high above Whistler Village while expressing a spirited can-do attitude for the off-road work.
And on pavement, like twin-laned Route 99 following a whitewater chute through Lillooet Valley, the new rendition of Grand Vitara rolls along in a smooth and stable manner with riders in the five-seat cabin ensconced comfortably with downright luxurious trappings.
That's quite a stretch for a vehicle which traces back in Suzuki's lineage to the rugged-but-rough Sidekick four-door hardtop SUV of 1991.
A second generation for Suzuki's eensy-weensy SUV began in 1999 with the name switch from Sidekick to Vitara and, for a long-wheelbase variation, Grand Vitara.
The latter packed Suzuki's first six-cylinder automotive engine -- a 2.5-liter V6 worth 165 hp -- and even deluxe trimwork with a leather-lined Limited edition.
With the arrival of a third generation of designs for Suzuki's compact-class SUV, however, about the only component carried forward is the nameplate as Grand Vitara of 2006 scores a complete make-over.
The revision begins with a lightweight but tight new unit-body monocoque structure, the type typically used for nimble sports cars rather than SUVs.
Yet this unibody structure has a sturdy ladder-style base platform attached so it works double-duty to deliver a smooth ride quality on pavement but also strong traits for tackling rough off-road routes.
With the re-do the wagon also gains a fully independent suspension system and top-of-class safety features.
The suspension consists of front MacPherson struts, coupled to coil springs with hydraulic shock absorbers, and a rear multi-link arrangement, also with coil springs and hydraulic shocks.
Safety gear extends from an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) to a traction control system (TCS) and electronic stability program (ESP), plus six air bags -- even curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above outboard seats front and back.
The new structure for Grand Vitara measures longer and broader than the previous version so there's more room now for riders plus more comfortable amenities aboard.
Cargo space also increases.
The wagon's rear cargo bay, accessible from a one-piece flip-open back door, provides almost 25 cu-ft of stow space with the rear seatback upright or more than 68 cu-ft of room with the seatback folded down.
Layout of the cabin consists of front-row bolstered buckets and a back-row bench with seatback split 60/40 and each side folding independently.
The driver's bucket faces a three-spoke padded steering wheel and the instrument cluster with vivid white-on-black analog gauges ringed by brushed silver trim.
A swoopy console flows down from the center dash to cover the floor tunnel and house the transmission's gated shifter below control panels for audio and climate systems.
Suzuki builds the Grand Vitara in only one well-stocked trim but offers three separate equipment packages -- Premium, XSport and Luxury.
XSport, for instance, adds premium appointments in the cabin (automatic transmission and Suzuki's SmartPass keyless entry) plus exterior trim additions -- charcoal fender flares, rails on the roof and foglamps in fascia, plus 16-inch alloy wheels on the ground.
Standard cabin gear ranges from air conditioning with automatic climate controls and micron air filtration to cruise control, a digital clock with exterior temperature and fuel consumption indicators plus an adjustable armrest perched on the center console with storage cubbyhole below.
Stock audio components include AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA with remote controls mounted on the steering wheel.
Optional for audio is a six-disc CD changer in the dash with seven speakers including twin tweeters and a subwoofer.
For power, the Grand Vitara pulls from a V6 engine with aluminum block and heads plus dual cams on top.
It displaces 2.7 liters and delivers 185 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 184 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
A five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission is available, with a manual five-speed stick as the standard.
Considering that the vehicle's weight maxes at only 3682 lb even with a 4WD mechanism and automatic shifter added, it leaps to action when prompted and inspires confidence for executing passing maneuvers.
Two-wheel-drive (2WD) traction format with power directed to the rear wheels is the norm for Grand Vitara, although two different 4WD systems are available -- single-mode or quad-mode.
The single-mode 4WD device is always engaged but has no transfer case or low gear. It works best for maintaining traction on wet or slippery pavement.
The four-mode 4WD, with center differential lock and both high and low gears, is designed for traction security on or off pavement.
First mode is automatic 4WD high (4H) with torque split 47/53 percent (front/rear) for pavement travel.
Second mode is 4H-Lock with center differential locked in high gear for running on gravel roads.
Third is 4L-Lock mode with center differential locked in low gear for slow going over rough terrain.
Fourth is N mode with the transfer case switched to neutral position for flat towing of the SUV.
MSRP figures for Grand Vitara begin at $18,999 for a base edition (2WD with manual transmission). For 4WD and automatic shifting, the figure rises to $21,999.