- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

Most Americans, if they recognize the name Suzuki, have different notions of what it represents. That's because the Japanese company has a split personality. It makes motorcycles, outboard motors and automobiles.

However, in a 17-million market for cars and trucks, Suzuki has been a minor player. Last year, it sold 64,698 cars and sport utility vehicles in the United States. Still, that was more than double the number of its sales in 1997.

It actually did better than that because some of its models were renamed and sold by Chevrolet dealers, first under the Geo nameplate, then as separate Chevy models, including the Tracker and the Metro.

Most Suzuki models have been at the low end of the automotive ladder: cheaper, smaller and with less power than mainstream offerings. That started to change with the introduction of the XL-7 SUV, a seven-passenger stretched version of the Grand Vitara.

Now, with the 2002 Aerio, Suzuki plunges full-bore into the heart of the small-car market, which is dominated by the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cavalier.

The Italian-designed Aerio comes in two models: a four-door sedan and a new four-door hatchback, which Suzuki calls a "sport crossover." That reflects the fact that manufacturers these days avoid, at all costs, any reference to "station wagon" or "hatchback," which are feared as buyer turnoffs.

Whatever you call it, the new Aerio SX the four door with the hatch is the most noteworthy. The four-door sedan in itself is a decent enough car, with generous passenger and trunk space, as well as a taller seating position in the modern idiom. But it is easily lost in a sea of small sedans.

The visually arresting SX, on the other hand, fits right in with the new breed of hatchbacks crossovers, if you will that manufacturers believe will titillate young people. The idea is to give them some of the advantages of an SUV, in people- and cargo-hauling capability, but with a low price and decent fuel economy.

There are a number of such vehicles raining on the market, including the Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix, Mazda Protigi5, Ford Focus ZX5 and the Subaru Impreza Sport Wagon.

To enhance the SUV suggestion, the Aerio SX joins some of its contemporaries in offering all-wheel drive, though not initially. The test SX had the standard front-wheel drive.

From a styling standpoint, the SX fits the new genre perfectly. Though tall, it has enough lower body cladding to make it look as if it's hugging the ground. However, that could be something of a drawback because some observers think it looks somewhat like a minivan, another supposed buyer turnoff. It does look something like a smaller Honda Odyssey.

Suzuki's notion in designing the Aerio was to offer a high level of equipment at a low price, and in that it succeeds admirably.

The SX's base price of a buck under $15,000 includes air conditioning, a six-speaker stereo with a CD player, power windows and mirrors, remote-control power door locks, 15-inch aluminum wheels, fog lights, cruise control, driver's seat height adjuster and a clever storage area under the rear deck that contains a removable bucket so you can wash your Aerio wherever you are.

The only options are a four-speed automatic transmission ($1,000), anti-lock brakes ($500) and floor mats ($75). All-wheel drive adds $1,000-plus. Neither a sunroof nor side air bags are offered.

Disdaining its own precedents, Suzuki got serious when it came to providing power to the people. The Aerio comes standard with an aluminum 2-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers a solid 141 horsepower. One notable feature is an internal chain to drive the overhead camshafts. Unlike external timing belts, the chain does not need periodic replacement.

Coupled to the easy-shifting five-speed manual gearbox, however, the engine doesn't feel quite as strong as its horsepower rating would suggest. That's likely because the transmission gearing is biased toward fuel economy, which is a respectable 26 miles to the gallon.

Nevertheless, the Aerio SX has enough punch to keep from being embarrassed in traffic. Zero to 60 arrives in less than 10 seconds. On the highway, it's a comfortable cruiser, with nicely shaped front bucket seats upholstered in a nubby, suedelike cloth.

Handling is mostly straight and true, although the SX is susceptible to strong crosswinds.

An oddity is the Aerio's digital instruments, something you'd expect to find on a Mercury Grand Marquis, not an economy car. But they're easy to see and read, and you soon get used to them.

For active-lifestyle folks who like to haul lots of gear, the SX is ideal. There's 21 cubic feet of cargo area behind the back seat, which folds down to more than double the available load space. Unfortunately, the seatbacks do not recline, which forces rear-seat passengers to sit uncomfortably upright.

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