2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara 4x4 in the Autoblog Garage Day 3-4

Fish around in your pants for the Suzuki's fob, punch the unlock button, pull the handle, and clamber inside. Or, rather, you might've, were there actually a need to engage in a bit of pocket-lint spelunking. Not so with the new Grand Vitara. In an unusual move for its class, Suzuki has fitted their compact SUV with a type of keyless entry and start. Oh, there's a fob (a big, chunky one, at that), but you won't need to lay hands on it every time you want to get in or out of the vehicle... that's what those rubberized oval buttons on the two front doors and rear cargo access door are for. Approach the vehicle with the fob somewhere on your person, and the 'Zuki detects its presence, allowing you to open the door (one push on the handle button for your door, two nudges for everyone). It's a system that works well, particularly as keyring-resident box still works as normal. Hidden within is a key for valets and less-than-trustworthy types.

[Click through to the jump for further interior impressions and more than a dozen photos!)

Clamber into the driver's seat, and you're surrounded with a paint-by-numbers small SUV dashboard. On our leather-lined Luxury-spec tester, a meaty, hide-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel makes no apologies for being a Suzuki, with an oversized badge on the steering wheel boss. In front of the driver is a silver-ringed, three-gauge binnacle, 130 mph steering wheel to the center, flanked on the left side by a rev counter, and on the right by a gauge face housing telltales for gas, oil pressure, and a PRNDL readout.

The dashboard is fairly traditional in execution, with ours arriving in a muted tan with some matte-finish brightwork around the 'eyeball' vents and slathered on pair of sizeable vertical endcaps abutting the center console. The dash itself is nicely grained and keeps reflections to a minimum, but somehow looks soft-touch when in fact it isn't. Faux dark wood is kept to a minimum, with bits on the doors and surround the five-speed automatic gearshift selector. Although we can't profess to be fans of fake plastic trees, at least there isn't a forest of the stuff.

A waterfall center-stack houses the usual suspects – HVAC supervision, stereo controls. But hang on a sec-- what's a hardcore item like a driveline selector doing in a cute ute? Well, lo[w range] and behold, the Grand Vitara aspires to off-road credibility, with knob affording low and high range selection, something not likely to be found in competitors like Toyota's RAV4, or even the Chevrolet Equinox, with which the GV shares a limited amount of hardware. Perhaps the only direct competitor in the segment to offer anything other than slip-n-grip all-wheel-drive is Jeep's aging Liberty.

Running top-to-bottom, there's a multi-function display that houses a clock, outside temperature gauge, and an on-the-fly mpg readout of dubious merit. Drop your gaze, and beyond the air vents and the hazard button is a well-integrated six-disc MP3/WMA-compatible changer with XM satellite radio. Its faceplate design is mercifully rational, with just 18 buttons. Hidden throughout the interior are seven speakers, including a pair of tweeters and a subwoofer (lower models must make do with a four-speaker, single-disc setup). For a factory system on a lower-priced SUV, it's a nice piece, though FM reception could be a bit stronger.

Directly below the stereo is the automatic climate control supervision, a two knob affair with an array of buttons fanned out between them. For the most part, the system works well, but we'd have preferred a less style-conscious third knob for directing airflow and an integrated temperature readout. The center console shifter is of the graduated-gate variety, sharing space with a pair of 12-volt outlets and the heated seat activators. A pair of cupholders do their thing adjacent to a smallish armrest with integrated storage, rounding out the center console. Looking for the power moonroof controls? They're sensibly spotted overhead, next to the Homelink buttons.

Ergonomic pitfalls border on the nonexistent in the Grand Vitara, but a few notable omissions do annoy – the power window and lock switches are well-placed, but not all of them are backlit at night. More troublesome is the fact that none of the steering wheel's cruise-control or redundant audio switches are illuminated in the dark, a seriously irritating oversight. Visibility is good all around, with the only caveat that the d-pillars are a shade chunky.

The front seats on our top-rung tester proved quite comfortable even over longer distances, but the cowhide-wrapped chairs didn't offer much in the way of lateral support, discouraging enthusiastic driving over twisty roads. The back row's squabs are even less defined, presumably to more easily accommodate baby seats. This, combined with the lack of a center-position armrest means that back seat passengers are prone to sliding about uncomfortably.  At least there's class-competitive room back there (though it's a bit tight in the hips), and all three perches have adjustable headrests. As they must be raised in order to keep from jutting into a passenger's back, this bothered some occupants, but we think the design promotes proper use of head restraints.

The cargo area is accessed by an off-side hinged door; an inconvenient reminder of the GV's oriental origins that prevents easy loading while parallel parked. Further, the externally mounted spare issues a horrible fiberglass death rattle every time the cargo door is slammed shut – a few additional rubber seals would probably help quell the nastiness a great deal. Unlike some of the smaller entries in its class, there's still room for groceries and/or a few suitcases when the second row is occupied, and the rear seats split/fold/tumble 60/40 to accommodate larger loads, though they do so in a less-than-compact fashion, eating away at valuable space. At least there's a hidden well suitable for valuables and flat objects hidden under our tester's rubber mat.

On the safety front, dual-stage front airbags are standard-fit, with a weight-sensor in the passenger seat. Impressively, full-length side curtains come on even the least-expensive 2WD Grand Vitara, as does electronic stability control with traction control.

All-in, our Luxury Package Grand Vitara appears to be a pretty compelling piece. But until we turn a wheel in anger, we won't be able to render a verdict on Suzuki's latest and greatest. Stay tuned for Day 5.

(Missed out on the Grand Vitara's first installment? Check out Day 1-2 here)

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