- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

With seating for up to seven persons, luxury features and a price tag that starts under $20,000, the 2003 XL-7 is one of the most well-equipped, best-value midsized SUVs on the market.
This offering from Suzuki, which has been revamped inside and out for the 2003 model year, is clearly a stand-out in its end of the crowded SUV segment. Calling the XL-7 a "right-sized" SUV, Suzuki puts it wheel-to-wheel with the Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe and Toyota Highlander and beats out the competition in interior room (127.25 cubic feet), and comes in second in cargo space behind the Highlander. A standard V-6 engine is another plus, as is a seven-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
XL-7's boasting rights come at a crucial time for this Asian automaker that first entered the U.S. market in 1963 with motorcycles, followed by a marine division in 1977. The brand has been better known for its motorcycles and recreational vehicles, such as ATVs and snowmobiles, than for its cars and trucks. Having been the runt of the import-car litter in North America for decades, Suzuki hopes the XL-7, along with the rest of the 2003 lineup, will help to change that.
Suzuki's midsized sport ute is a good start. Build on the same platform as the Grand Vitara SUV, XL-7 has a longer wheelbase, length and interior space than its compact-class sibling. Two trim levels are available: Touring and Limited Edition. The names sound a bit more glamorous than the vehicles; nevertheless, Touring is a modest-but-adequately equipped base model with keyless remote entry, power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise, air, steering wheel audio controls and an in-dash CD player.
The Limited Edition adds ABS, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, power tilt-and-slide sunroof, leather trim and optional heated front seats. Both trim levels can be ordered with either rear-wheel 2WD or 4WD; a third row of seats also is available on both versions.
A walk around the XL-7 reveals a very straightforward, almost cookie-cutter SUV design. The front end is simple, with a horizontally slatted grille and bumper-integrated fog lamps. The 110.2-inch wheelbase gives the vehicle a long profile, which looks a bit out of proportion with the 15-inch wheels (16-inch wheels are optional on Touring, standard on Limited models). Side windows give good visibility, while roof rails and chrome door handles break up the monotony.
The standard 2.7-liter V-6 engine delivers 183 horsepower and 180 foot-pounds of torque, as well as a 3,000-pound tow rating for trailering. It's matched to a standard five-speed manual transmission, with a four-speed automatic available as an option. A truly impressive four-wheel-drive system also is available, and is worth the investment. Despite an entry-level price, the XL-7's 4WD is capable and responsive, with shift-on-the-fly up to 60 mph and a low-range option for rough terrain.
Inside, the XL-7 offers a lot of interior space, with seating for five or seven passengers, depending on whether buyers choose the third-row seat. Realistically, fitting in seven adults is a tight squeeze, but the third row is excellent for stowing stuff or packing in a few extra kids. Cargo space maxes out at 75.1 cubic feet with the second and third seats folded; stowage is 43.3 cubic feet with the third row folded, 37 cubic feet in models with rear seats folded in models with only two rows.
A new dashboard with woodgrain accents and chrome trim features an in-dash CD player with easy-to-reach controls. Outside temperature and clock display, along with standard automatic climate control, fit neatly underneath the stereo controls. A center console with 12-volt power socket sits under a padded armrest between the front seats, and an overhead console in Touring editions allows for extra stowage.
On the road, an independent front suspension smoothes out bumps, while the rear suspension is designed to articulate when necessary off-road. Rack-and-pinion steering helps make the XL-7 more maneuverable and easier to park than many of its competitors.
Dual front airbags, the LATCH child safety seat anchor system and rear-door child safety locks are key safety features; ABS is optional.
Overall, XL-7 offers an appealing, economical package for those in the market for a midsized SUV. Though it lacks the brand strength of Toyota or the looks of a Hyundai Santa Fe, Suzuki's offering is worth consideration.

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