- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

MODEL: Suzuki Vitara XL-7 AWD
MILEAGE: 17 city, 20 highwa

Not everyone wants to drive a burly Ford Excursion or Expedition, a macho-looking Dodge Durango or even the no-longer-so-big Chevrolet Suburban.
But mainstream sport utility shoppers who want three rows of seats haven't had many alternatives.
Until now.
Suzuki's 2001 Grand Vitara XL-7 has just begun to arrive in showrooms with three rows of seats as standard equipment. They're inside a SUV that's basically the length of a midsize Toyota 4Runner.
Better yet, the Suzuki XL-7 XL stands for extra large and "7" connotes Suzuki's seventh new design of sport utility for the U.S. market is bargain-priced.
In fact, the XL-7 comes to market as the least-expensive seven-passenger sport utility, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price and destination charge of $20,299 for a two-wheel-drive model with manual transmission. A four-wheel-drive model starts at $21,499.
Few SUVs these days offer three rows of seats, and those that do are bigger than the XL-7 and cost more.
The 2001 Dodge Durango starts at $27,785 for a two-wheel-drive model with optional third-row bench seat. The 2001 Ford Expedition starts at $31,200 for a two-wheel-drive model with optional third-row seating. The Durango and Expedition come only with automatic transmissions.
Suzuki officials point out the XL-7 built as an elongated version of the company's popular-selling, five-passenger Grand Vitara is the biggest SUV the company has ever built. The automaker has been known over the years for small SUVs such as the Sidekick. It also produces the Tracker for Chevrolet.
But by stretching Grand Vitara's regular wheelbase by 12.6 inches and extending overall length by 19.1 inches, the bigger XL-7 was born.
Still, it's compactly sized. As an upcoming Suzuki ad points out, "You don't have to be a boat to tow one."
I found the test XL-7 4WD Plus model with five-speed manual quite maneuverable, although its turning circle is larger than expected at 38.7 feet.
The longer wheelbase helps provide a smoother ride for example, over concrete expansion cracks. And a new strut tower brace in the XL-7 engine compartment a handling and rigidity structure often used in sports cars adds some tightness to the handling.
But track and width of this elongated Grand Vitara model weren't changed, and for a seven-passenger vehicle, the XL-7 feels relatively lightweight while you're driving it.
The test XL-7, with me and an adult passenger inside, danced and bounced skittishly over some rough pavement. When this occurred as I was taking curves at high speeds, the XL-7 bounced over the yellow line as I tried to correct. The tall-riding XL-7 also has a good amount of body lean.
None of this inspired confidence, although drives in the XL-7 on straight, smooth highways were pleasant. And travel in city traffic, where speeds are lower, was perfectly acceptable.
In the XL-7, you know you're riding in a sport utility because there's more vibration from road bumps than many cars provide. But the overall sense isn't of a brutish ride.
There is noticeable wind noise at highway speeds, especially around the outside mirrors.
Inside, be sure to notice how smartly Suzuki handles the second- and third-row seating. The second-row seats are on tracks so they can be pulled a bit forward to allow for better legroom for those in the third row.
Still, Suzuki officials estimated most third-seat riders would be children.
Even the base XL-7 comes well equipped, with standard front air conditioning, cruise control, keyless remote entry and power doors, windows and mirrors.
But side air bags aren't offered, and anti-lock brakes are only offered in an option package, not as a stand-alone option.
The XL-7 comes only with a 170-horsepower V-6, while the Durango and Expedition have more powerful V-8s. More expensive, luxury SUVs that have three rows of seats, like the Acura MDX, come with V-6s that put out more than 200 horsepower.
So an XL-7 that's carrying seven people won't have the same "zoom" as the more powerful SUVs. And maximum towing capacity is 3,000 pounds.
But in my less-burdened test drive, the XL-7 moved sprightly, except when I headed up mountain roads.
Then, the manual transmission test model lost momentum quickly until I downshifted. Another test model, with automatic transmission, niftily managed the power needs on these mountain roads.
Fuel economy isn't anything to brag about, even though the XL-7 is, in comparison to other three-row SUVs, quite lightweight.
Four-wheel-drive models come with a part-time system. There's a low gear for off-road going and ground clearance is 7.5 inches.

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