Motoring: Road Test: This car should be taken off the road

Suzuki's new Grand Vitara is that rare thing - an off-roader that actually lives up to the description.

The Suzuki Vitara. Cue knowing laugh, Essex-girl jokes, jibes about hairdressers ... Fair enough. After all, the Vitara is a soft target. You can't drive a pink-and-white Vitara with chrome wheels and foot-wide tyres without causing mirth among sophisticated folk.

This hasn't stopped people buying the things, though. The fat-wheeled brigade render their machines pointless, because such Barbied-up examples lose the ability to do what 4x4s are meant to be for, which is to plug away off-road across muddy hills and fields. But that is hardly the point. The idea is to be seen to have an active, sporty lifestyle, not actually to have one.

Anyway, there's now a new Vitara, although the old one continues. The new one is called a Grand Vitara, but we have already seen a Grand Vitara with a biggish five-door, estate-car-type body and a 2.5-litre V6 engine. So what is this newcomer, exactly?

This less-grand Grand is the front half of the grander Grand attached to a truncated rear half with a soft top. The shorter wheelbase makes it closer in size to the Vitara we all know and some love, but it has the bonus of a beefier engine: 2.0 litres against 1.6.

It would be possible to fit the V6 motor into this truncated, roofless Grand Vitara, and the result could potentially be quite amusing, but this particular combination of parts is as yet unavailable.

Are you confused yet? There's more. This new soft-top Suzuki is made in Canada rather than Japan, but later in the year there will be a hardtop, three-door version on this same short wheelbase, which will indeed be Japanese-made.

Meanwhile, the old Vitara is still made in Spain, at a factory which once assembled Land Rovers. Also coming soon is the option of the 2.0- litre engine in the five-door Grand Vitara, as a cheaper alternative to the V6. Now that you are a Vitara expert, you will want to know what the new one, subtitled GV2000, is like.

It's cheapened compared with the five-door V6, with smaller wheels, less voluptuous wheel arches and bumperage, and a facia which creates a new world record for blanking plugs where switches might live in grander Grands.

But don't be disheartened, for this is a low-cost 4x4 by the standards of its peers. You won't find another 2.0-litre off-roader for less. After the last Vitara, chunkily square and almost pretty in a bronzed-bodied, hairless-chested kind of way, the new one looks a little soft and amorphous. (All the better to accessorise, of course, and your Suzuki dealer will be happy to oblige.) But its demeanour is undeniably frolicsome once the roof is off, revealing a pair of rear seats in what looks like the back of a baby pick-up truck.

If you had hoped to whip off the roof in a spontaneous sunshine moment, though, you may have been disappointed. Opening-up the front half is easy enough - it just folds back and sits on the roll-over bar - but dismantling the tent-like rear section takes time and patience. It takes even more of both to reassemble, so remember to pack an umbrella should the re-erection have been forced by rain. Once reassembled, the roof proves free of leaks.

To drive, the GV2000 is entirely unremarkable. The engine is muscular enough to stay on top of changing traffic conditions, unlike that of the old Vitara, but despite the 16-valve design it's happier pulling firmly at low speeds than revving hard. The gearchange is light and precise, the steering accurate by 4x4 standards, and fast cornering feels more precarious than it is because you sit high and the car is short. That shortness makes the GV2000 fidget and jerk on imperfect roads, too.

So far, then, the Suzuki is not a car to command great respect. What you should do, then, is what most owners are never likely to do. Take it off-road, preferably on to some truly glutinous, mud-covered hills. Suddenly, the GV2000 has a point.

Engage four-wheel drive, plus low-range transmission so the engine is running faster for a given road speed, and off you go. I attempted a course as described above, and even on regular road tyres, instead of coarse- treaded off-road footwear, the Grand Vitara munched its way along with ease.

So it should, because this is what the Suzuki is designed to do. Some of its rivals are better to drive on the road, but that's because they are built to a different set of compromises. The Freelander, alone, excels in both roles. You can't, however, get a Freelander for pounds 13,495.

Specifications

Model: Suzuki Vitara GV2000

Price range: pounds 13,495

Engine: 1,995cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 126bhp at 6,000rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, selectable four-wheel drive

Performance: 99mph, 0-60 time not quoted, 25-30mpg

RIVALS

Toyota RAV4 2.0 Soft Top: pounds 15,995. Lively, well-designed, more car-like than Suzuki, less adept off-road

Jeep Wrangler 2.5 Sport: pounds 14,220. The original low-cost, knockabout 4x4. Better to drive than you'd expect, and terrific off-road

Land Rover Freelander 1.8i Softback: pounds 16,570. Expensive, but you pay for the name, solid build and sophistication

Honda HR-V: pounds 13,995: Not a soft-top, nor a proper off-roader, but still fun

Daewoo Korando 2.3: pounds 15,995. Jeep-influenced looks, crude but capable off-road

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