- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

Subcompact has
flair in niche
known for utility

Suzuki's new subcompact sport crossover and sedan, the Aerio, proved a pleasant surprise. Most subcompacts are built for utilitarian purpose, not pleasure. The Aerio is a rare exception to the rule.

The test car was the SX version; a four-door hatchback called a sport crossover by Suzuki. It is cute and attractive. The sedan version is more mainstream and won't attract as much attention.

Performance in the SX was much sprightlier than expected. Its 141-horsepower, inline, four-cylinder engine is more powerful than standard power plants in either the Ford Focus or Honda Civic. Don't get me wrong, the Aerio is not a street racer, but it accelerates better than most of the competition and I found it fun to drive.

It is also light-years improved from Suzuki's last compact model, the Esteem. It is not only quicker but it handles better.

This is the first time that Suzuki is making a major effort to gain a foothold in the North American mainstream segment. It is taking on the big boys such as Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus and Honda Civic. The Aerio is designed to move Suzuki out of the budget niche in the compact segment.

Suzuki doesn't plan to quickly knock off the segment leaders. Rick Suzuki, the company's American chief executive officer. He says the company's objective is to take it slow. He expects to sell only 20,000 units in its first year, despite doubled ad spending.

“We want growth,” he said, “but we want it in such a way that it's sustainable. Before we introduced niche vehicles, but the Aerio will takes us into the mainstream, where there's more volume.”

Industry analysts believe Suzuki has the right strategy to sell more than 20,000 Aerios. The primary goal is to sell 100,000 units in the United States and to gain 1 percent of the market share. The current Suzuki lineup currently sells 65,000 units annually.

The company believes the Aerio's expressive styling and sportiness with one of the most powerful standard engines in the small-car class and incredible category-leading space will make would-be buyers take notice.

While the sedan has two trim levels S and GS the SX is available in one, fully loaded trim package. All-wheel-drive versions are expected to be offered this September.

Both the sedan and SX are offered with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The test car was equipped with the five-speed manual and I was impressed with its smoothness and crisp feel.

Price-wise, both the GS and SX models have a price under the $15,000 small-price threshold and the price for the well-equipped S rings in well below the $14,000 mark.

Aerio's excellent fuel economy adds to the value equation topping out for both models at 26 mpg city and 33 mpg highway (manual transmission) and 26 mpg city and 31 mpg highway with the automatic. The test car averaged 28 mpg in combined city and highway conditions.

Both models offer folding front and rear bumpers, sporty side moldings, wheel flares and a striking front grille, providing both models with an urban feel. Adding to the two cars' appeal are five-spoke aluminum alloy wheels, keyless remote entry, fog lamps and distinctive rear spoiler with brake light.

The SX provides a prominent rear profile with a hatch featuring a gas pressure-assisted lift mechanism and a large window. It also creates one of the largest rear-cargo entries in its class.

The engine is a two-liter, aluminum, dual-overhead camshaft, 16-valve, inline four-cylinder engine that provides 135 foot-pounds of torque.

Aerio features front disc brakes, liquid-filled motor mounts, power steering and MacPherson strut front and rear suspension for a high-quality ride and handling.

The two models offer more total interior volume than most of their competitors and at 14.6 cubic feet, more trunk volume than any car in the class.

The driver is provided with a high front seating position for excellent visibility, and there are larger doors for easier access. The seats also provide under-seat storage.

Standard features in all models include air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, three-spoke steering wheel, rear-window defroster, multiple cup holders, adjustable front headrests, split-folding rear seat for trunk access.

The instrument panel provides a digital speedometer and tachometer. Both models are provided with bucket seats with a two-tone velour and mesh fabric.

GS and SX models are provided with power door locks, keyless entry, cruise control, height-adjustable driver's seat, rear-seat armrests and front map light, and front seat-back pockets.

The week spent in the driver's seat of the Aerio SX was a blast. Its quickness kept me on the alert and its roadability added to the driving pleasure of the Aerio. If you are in the market for a small car and fail to seek out the Aerio you'll be missing what appears to be a great bargain.

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