- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

Every time a horse is called for, it doesn’t have to be a thoroughbred.There is a world of difference between running in the Kentucky Derby and pulling a milk wagon. Good enough is usually, well, good enough. In the world of passenger cars, image enhancers and some extra engineering are wonderful, but often a basic hatchback can get the job done. In those applications where a good-enough car is good enough, a multitude of entry-level economy coupes, sedans and wagons are equal to the task.

Truth be told, even basic transportation isn’t all that basic any more, anyway. Anyone willing to forego features such as air conditioning can be on the road in a new car for $11,000. However, adding just two or three grand to that tremendously expands the possibilities to include all manner of convenience features including power windows/door locks, cruise control and multispeaker audio systems. It’s here, in that $13,000 to $15,000 arena, that the Suzuki Reno makes its mark.

Basically a reconfigured Forenza, the Reno has a rear hatch in place of Forenza’s trunk. More youthful in its curb appeal, Reno projects a fun-to-drive attitude that the Forenza sedan doesn’t quite muster. Its sportier shell, though, masks the same engine, transmissions and chassis mechanicals found in Forenza. This is not a bad thing. Forenza is a competent little sedan, but Suzuki didn’t stretch much creating Reno.

All-new in 2005, Reno evolved only subtly for 2006. Better seat fabrics is the major change. Dumping its three model designations (S, LX and EX) from last year, Reno is now offered in base ($13,779), Convenience ($14,729) or Premium ($15,879) trim. There are no Convenience or Premium exterior badges, so they really are more option packages than distinct trim levels. And save for an automatic transmission, these option packages are the only factory add-ons available.

Even the core Reno has an impressive list of standard features. Air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, front seat-mounted side-impact air bags, power windows/door locks/outboard mirrors and an eight-speaker audio system with CD player lead the standard feature list. Remote keyless entry, power sunroof and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls highlight the Convenience group’s extras. With the Premium upgrade come leather seating, antilock brakes and alloy wheels.

Providing Reno’s giddyap is a 2.0-liter four that delivers 127 horsepower. This is a few ponies shy of the four-bangers in some key competitors such as the Honda Civic at 140 horsepower and the Hyundai Elantra at 138. Acceleration is spirited, however, providing more than enough zip to move easily through urban traffic. With sufficient open runway ahead, this trim four has the chops to carry the Reno around slower movers on the highway at speed. A five-speed manual transmission ushers engine output to the front wheels.

While eliminating the effort required to manually work the transmission, the optional four-speed automatic somewhat dampens performance and adds $900 to the bottom line.

With an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 23 miles per gallon in the city and 30 on the highway, Reno is in the fuel economy hunt with Elantra, but is left panting at the gas pump by the Civic with its 30 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway stats.

Handling and ride quality are about what you would expect in a short-wheelbase economy car. The independent suspension smoothes out most surface inconsistencies. The ride is pleasant, if not pliant. The speed-sensitive power steering is light and precise. In tuning the suspension, Suzuki engineers chose ride comfort over spot-on handling. Hard cornering produces some body lean, but in everyday driving the suspension is sufficiently balanced.

Reno’s close relationship with Forenza is evident throughout the passenger compartment. While not a carbon copy of the sedan’s interior, the lion’s share of the controls, gauges and switches are the same. The steering wheel, the main three-gauge cluster and the seats are all borrowed from Forenza. Reno’s interior has enough room for four adults to motor about in relative comfort. A three-point center seatbelt and headrest in the back seat creates accommodations for a fifth passenger, but shoehorning three adults across would require a gallon of bear grease.

Even with a 6-footer in the front seat, though, rear-seat legroom is decent. Seat padding wasn’t a major investment. The front seats are nicely shaped, but well on the firm side, as is the 60/40 split rear bench seat. Wide door openings provide easy access both front and rear. Despite the liberal use of plastic, the interior of the base Reno test car was well constructed.

The heart of the Reno story is price versus content. In terms of creature comforts, you get a lot of bang for your buck. It’s not the quickest, best-handling or most fuel efficient hatchback in its segment, but it is competitive in all categories. Dollar for dollar, it’s certainly as well equipped as anything in its class, and better equipped than some. More than fulfilling the econo-box mission of being good enough when good enough is all that’s needed, Reno is basic transportation that transcends basic.

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