Controversy is the last thing most automotive executives want in the final months before a new vehicle launch.

But for American Suzuki Motor Corp., its spat with General Motors Corp. over its new V-6 engine actually could serve as a great marketing tool for the Grand Vitara, the company's small sport/utility vehicle equipped with the new 2.5L powerplant.

Grand Vitara is the much-refined offspring of the Suzuki Sidekick and Chevrolet Tracker, which are built in Ingersoll, Ontario, at CAMI Automotive Inc., a 50-50 joint venture between Suzuki and GM.

GM wanted Suzuki's V-6 for its '99 Tracker, but the deal didn't happen: The largest engine available for the Tracker will be an equally new 2L 4-cyl.; the same is true for Suzuki's regular Vitara.

The bottom line is that if GM execs want the V-6 that badly, they must think Suzuki has a potential hit on its hands. More to the point, the availability of a V-6 is a powerful marketing hammer in the "cute-ute" segment, where whiny 4-cyl. engines are all there is. Word is GM is developing its own 3.2L V-6 for a future version of the Grand Vitara's Tracker twin.

The Japanese-built Grand Vitara arrived in U.S. showrooms in August. Prices range from $18,429 (with destination charge) for the two-wheel drive JS with manual transmission to $21,429 for the four-wheel drive JLX with an automatic.

The only problem is it arrives late to the segment, well behind the enormously popular Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V - both of which, themselves no exemplars of ultra-refinement, made the Grand Vitara's precursor, the Sidekick, look positively crude.

Now, not only is the Grand Vitara demonstrably more polished, it suddenly becomes the only vehicle with a V-6 in a tortuously underpowered segment. Suzuki's 24-valve, DOHC powerplant delivers 155 hp at 6,500 rpm and sweet 160 ft.-lbs. (217 Nm) of torque at 4,000 rpm.

Executives see the Grand Vitara as the company's breakthrough vehicle in North America, one that could help boost U.S. vehicle sales from about 35, 000 units now to 100,000 within a few years.

The Grand Vitara is a considerable step-up from the last-generation Sidekick/Tracker. Both generations employ body-on-frame construction, but the comparison ends there. All three vehicle lines will be available with two- and four-wheel drive, but the truckish recirculating-ball steering is replaced by the more sporty and responsive rack-and-pinion configuration.

The Sidekick/Tracker drove like a truck, with too much road noise, cramped quarters for driver and passengers and an outrageously lame 1.6L 4-cyl. that made passing - or sustaining Michigan freeway velocities - near impossible. Now, the new Grand Vitara drives like a car, is much quieter and more comfortable - and compared to piloting RAV4s and CR-Vs, the V-6 makes you feel like you're in torque heaven.

That's what really matters.