TESUQUE, N. M. -- All four tires on a Grand Vitara, the compact-class crossover utility vehicle from Suzuki of Japan, scratch in gravel but hold a steady grip on the unpaved road that winds way up Mount Baldy to the Santa Fe Ski Basin, perched more than two miles high in the Sangre de Cristo Range of New Mexico.
This stylish wagon, cast on a unibody structure with class-leading safety features aboard plus the choice of a multi-mode four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction mechanism, delivers strong torque from the standard four-cylinder engine but also offers a powerful six-cylinder upgrade.
It scampers up the precipitous track on Mount Baldy while expressing a spirited can-do attitude for the off-road work.
And on pavement, like U.S. 285 that bisects the Tesuque Indian Reservation, Grand Vitara rolls along in a smooth and stable manner with riders in the five-seat cabin ensconced in comfort with nearly 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 small wagon 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 155 hp -- and even deluxe trimwork with a leather-lined Limited edition.
With the arrival of a third generation of designs for Suzuki's compact CUV in 2006, however, about the only component carried forward was the nameplate as Grand Vitara scored a complete make-over.
The revision began with a lightweight but tight unit-body monocoque structure, the type typically used for agile sports cars.
Yet the unibody structure for the 2006 Grand Vitara included a sturdy ladder-style base platform so it would deliver a smooth ride quality on pavement but also strong traits for tackling rough off-road routes.
Then in 2009 Grand Vitara presented a fresh face with restyled front grille and bumper, and more equipment added to the list of standards.
Powertrains expanded with the choice of a four-cylinder plant or a forceful V6.
The wagon also gained a fully independent suspension system and top-of-class safety features.
For Grand Vitara 2010 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 including curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above outboard seats front and rear.
Layout of the cabin shows 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.
The wagon's rear cargo bay, accessible from a one-piece flip-open back door, provides more than 28 cubic feet of stow space with the rear seatback upright or 70.8 cubic feet of room with the rear seatback folded down.
Suzuki builds the Grand Vitara as one well-stocked trim but offers specific equipment packages -- Base, Premium, X Sport and Limited.
X Sport, for instance, adds premium appointments in the cabin (automatic transmission and Suzuki's SmartPass keyless entry) plus exterior trim components like 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 to power controls for windows/locks/mirrors, automatic headlamps and reclining rear seats with seatback split 60/40.
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 2010 Grand Vitara begins with a fuel-efficient dual-cam 2.4-liter four-in-line engine with linkage to either a five-speed manual (5MT) or four-speed automatic (4AT) transmission.
The four-pack plant generates 166 hp at 6000 rpm with 162 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
The upgrade engine is a dual-cam 3.2-liter V6 tied to a five-speed electronic automatic (5AT).
It produces 230 hp at 6200 rpm plus torque of 213 lb-ft at 3500 rpm.
Considering that the vehicle's weight maxes at only 3876 pounds even with 4WD mechanism and the 5AT 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 (for Grand Vitara 2.4-liter 4AT Premium) 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. It applies to Grand Vitara X Sport and Limited with the 2.4-liter 4AT or 3.2-liter 5AT.
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 CUV.
Suzuki sets MSRP points for the 2010 Grand Vitara in a wide spread beginning at $19,100 and extending to $27,200.