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Suzuki Shootout - Grand Vitara VS Samurai

Independent And Solid Suzukis Hit The Trail

Fred WilliamsPhotographer, Writer

Let's pretend you took a classic old solid-axle 4x4 and a modern-day4x4 with fully independent suspension and hit the trail. Would it be a disaster waiting to happen? Would the solid-axle rig dominate its younger brother? Or would the late-model luxury have the old-school owner begging for a ride? We ditched work, hit the trail, and ended up with an impromptu comparison session that revealed some insights on the solid-versus-independent and new-versus-old arguments.

Suzuki is known by most people for motorcycles, but its 4x4s are what really stand out to anyone reading this magazine. As many know, Suzuki built the awesome Samurai in days gone by, but after unsupported claims of instability by some sensationalizing media outlets it was discontinued in the U.S. Suzuki's current 4x4, the Grand Vitara, is the perfect vehicle for the unadventurously mainstream media, but how would it fair when shoved down a rocky off-camber desert trail by the crew at 4-Wheel & Off-Road? We hit the trail with both of these bite-sized imports and came home smiling.

The Grand Vitara, with its front and rear independent suspension, was modified by ARB with a bull bar, lift coils all around, and IPF lights. Though ARB offers an Air Locker, we did not have one installed, so we had some good testing of the factory traction control. Longer and lower than the Samurai, the GV was a more challenging drive in the dirt but still very capable with a 230-horse V-6, five-speed transmission, and 30-inch BFG All-Terrains.

Our Samurai specimen is a tuned and tweaked trail machine owned and built by Randy Ellis of Randy Ellis Design. It has stock axles stuffed with 3.73 gears, a rear locker, a 1.6L four-cylinder out of Geo Tracker, Calmini 4.16:1 transfer gears, a spring-over with Old Man Emu 11/2-inch Jeep YJ rear springs up front, and King 2.5 shocks and Walker Evans air shocks in the rear. The rear suspension is a three-link with track bar, all built by Randy Ellis Design, which also built the cage, axle truss, seat mounts, and bumpers. A Warn winch, steel wheels, 11/2-inch wheel spacers, and 33x1050 BFGoodrich KM2 muddies finish it up.

What's with the toaster?
Still think IFS is bad? Behind our dueling duo were our friends Ned and Kat in their four-wheel-drive Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro. This all-independent off-road van has been all over the country (and much of Baja, Mexico) exploring backcountry trails and acting as a mini mobile home. It has good aftermarket shocks, locking differentials, and aggressive tires, the same parts that make any 4x4 better off road, whether solid or independent.

There was one place the GV sped past the old Sammy: the tarmac. In fact, the photographer was in the GV with the A/C on while Randy Ellis cruised a little slower in his open-topped ride. Ellis was smiling, but if this trail ride was held in upper Michigan in the dead of winter, it may have been a different story.