Suffice it to say that Suzuki has never stunned North American consumers with beautiful automotive designs. In point of fact, reviewing their history reveals a certain manic quality, little of it pretty. Oddball propositions like the toy-like X-90 and character-free Esteem have given way to the likes of Suzuki's ill-proportioned Aerio and milquetoast non-statements on the order of the Verona and Forenza. But there are tangible signs that the automaker is finally finding the plot– the inexpensive Italdesign-penned Reno and the tweener SX4 crossover are both attractive propositions. But the offering most likely to become the company's poster child is the all-new-for 2006 Grand Vitara.

A direct replacement for its tired, boxy predecessor that reigned from 1999-2004, the new Grand Vitara is infinitely more compelling with even just a cursory glance. By comparison, yuppies ought to be clamoring for the reborn GV like it's next year's Ikea catalog. Simply put, it's a looker. The strong lines of its clamshell-style hood set the tone, creating a defining ridge across the top of the rectilinear grille, lending the clear-lensed headlamps a bit of edge. The former element is of the blacked-out cross-hatch variety, with a thin, u-shaped chrome lip adding definition and a bit of class. Even when viewed from the dead-on, the GV's meaty fender flares lend it a properly butch stance, particularly as they mold so nicely into the bumper, itself augmented by a pair of blisters housing auxiliary driving lamps. Complaints? Well, the chrome 'S' badge on the nose is a bit outsized, coming across like a Superman logo reinterpreted by an anime artist. But it's hard to blame Suzuki's designers for wanting to get the message out that they're finally in the business of making attractively styled vehicles.

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Move along the Suzuki's profile, and pleasant details abound. The aggressive headlamps curve around to the side ever-so-slightly, neatly incorporating a turn signal slash. Moving rearward, the flares once again take center stage, rising to nearly meet the hood crease in the front. Arguably the GV's nicest detail, the small, well-rendered side vents at the trailing edge of the hood line add character to the profile while reinforcing the visual heft of the hood itself.

On the passenger side, the rear fender's arc is actually broken up by the round filler neck access door, but it's almost as if Suzuki's showing a bit of swagger in its assembly techniques, as the tricky flap on our tester fit perfectly, with nary a line interrupted. Meaty door pulls prove easy to grab, and house small oval rubberized buttons at thumb's reach (more on these in a future installment). The 17" wheels on our top-rung Luxury-spec tester are of the five-spoke variety, but feature strong detailing that combine with the flares to give the Grand Vitara a pugnacious, confident stance. Premium and Luxury trim level models gain a pair of close-cropped roof rails (but X-Games enthusiasts will need to order accessories in order to make use of them) and the stubby, rakish antenna can get in the way of mounting longer objects, something we learned firsthand. From the rack's rearward mounting point, the D-pillar and its attendant windowline plunge downward to meet the tail lamp, which is surprisingly prominent from the side. The effect lent our clear beige metallic GV a harmonious transition to the rear, though the thickness of the pillar looks to impair rearward visibility.

Out back, the tail end is dominated by the exterior full-sized spare carrier, which is scalloped to reduce visual heft. As it is mounted close to the body directly on the rear door, it nicely avoids the 'tacked-on' afterthought look, and in fact reinforces the off-road roots of the Suzuki. That said, its attractive aesthetics will likely come as cold comfort to owners who unwittingly back into things. It isn't that the spare intrudes upon rearward vision greatly, it's just that it stands proud of the rear bumper by a good many inches, unwittingly making it the SUV's first line of defense when up against taller objects. A great many slow-speed 'rear-into-pole' tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have proven in graphic fashion that such arrangements have a nasty habit of creating high repair bills, because the carriers push into the rear door, buckling sheetmetal and shattering the rear glass long before the bumper gets the chance to do its thing.

Equally troublesome is that the cargo door relies on an off-side hinge, betraying the Grand Vitara's Japanese roots. This setup is likely to cause problems for city-dwellers who parallel park frequently. With the hinge on the 'wrong' side, the door swings open against the curb, blocking access while requiring a good bit of space behind. Better solutions exist, and Suzuki ought to find one. And while we're at it, while not being one for the 'exhaust by Folgers' school of design, the tailpipe is decidedly too timid given the rest of the GV's visuals. At least the taillamps are nicely done.

In sum, Suzuki's new Grand Vitara boasts class-leading style every bit the equal of offerings like the Honda CR-V and Chevrolet Equinox. It's hard to make a compact SUV look tough without devolving into a self-conscious parody writ small, but Suzuki has managed just that. A few practical details perturb, particularly around the rear of the vehicle, but it's a tremendous accomplishment for the brand regardless... one that can more than hold its head high in mixed company.

Stay tuned, as we find out whether the interior and the driving experience are similarly best-in-class over the next two Autoblog Garage installments.