Expanding from motorcycles to automobiles worked for Honda--why can't it work for Suzuki? The maker of the magnificent Hayabusa motorcycle sells only 80,000 cars and trucks a year, mostly on the strength of its Hyundai- and Kia-matching 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. The Grand Vitara remains its iconic four-wheel-drive vehicle. And, for 2006, it's much better than the one it replaces. But Suzuki has a long way to go to catch nearly every import player in the compact-SUV segment (Honda and Toyota--and Hyundai and Kia, for that matter), at least, in terms of sales.

The new Grand Vitara has nicely creased sheetmetal on an integrated unibody frame chassis, and it wears the most handsome styling in its class. Grand Vitaras now have a wider track and longer wheelbase to provide more interior roominess with short overhangs for stability. The suspension is fully independent front and rear, with MacPherson struts in front and a new multilink setup in back, and gives the little 'ute improved handling characteristics. Underhood, however, there isn't as much to crow about. The engine is an anemic carryover 2.7-liter version of the old Grand Vitara's buzzy 2.5-liter V-6 making (albeit an improved) 185 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 184 pound-feet at 4500 rpm, up 20 horsepower and 22 pound-feet from the prior V-6. The engine is offered with a five-speed manual or all-new five-speed automatic transmission.

Base Grand Vitaras are rear drive. Move up a level, and models come with all-wheel drive, with base and Premium-package Grand Vitaras offering the full-time four-mode system ($1200) that features a neutral setting for those looking to flat-tow their Suzuki behind a truck or motorhome (Suzuki recommends stopping every 200 miles when towing and starting the vehicle to move the lubes through the engine). Towing capacity for all Grand Vitaras is 3000 pounds. All models get electronic stability control and six airbags. Serious off-roaders will want full-time four-mode four-wheel drive with a limited-slip differential, locking center diff, and low range, available for $1400 on XSport and Luxury versions. This option allows a good driver to venture further off the beaten path, well beyond the Grand Vitara's carlike small-SUV competitors. The economy-minded five-speed manual is available only with two-wheel drive or the base full-time all-wheel-drive system in the two lower trim levels.

The changes with the new model, despite excellent off-roadability, give it much more show than go. A handsome interior complements exterior styling, but suffers from hard plastics and unconvincing woodgrains. The slalom-style shiftgate discourages manual rowing of gears. And while wind noise is low, the SUV lets in sound from the road as well as from the loud, thrashy engine. On-road handling, although improved, is only fair. In addition, the steering is somewhat vague and the automatic often chooses unusual places to upshift or downshift on steep hills.

The Grand Vitara will place high in the often ignored compact sport/utility segment, which is full of aging vehicles like the Escape and CR-V. However, with recent strong showings from the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage, and the upcoming V-6 Toyota RAV4, being just as good as the rest won't be for long. Although there's plenty of improvement here, the Grand Vitara enters the market just a tick short of what it needs to be a contender.