- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

Suzuki, best known for its sporty motorbike engines and not-so-exciting compact vehicles, is launching a brand renaissance in 2003, beginning with the 2004 Verona, a stylish midsize sedan with the only standard inline six-cylinder in its class and a starting price under $17,000.

This ambitious move is the first step in a strategy Japan’s No. 4 automaker hopes will be as easy as 1-2-3. More accurately, the plan is called 3-5-7: a goal to triple U.S. sales within five years — by 2007.

This translates to annual sales of 200,000 vehicles in the United States by the end of that period. In 2002, Suzuki sold 1.8 million vehicles worldwide and, in the United States, improved 108 percent over the past five years in the J.D. Powers Initial Quality Survey, while its Customer Satisfaction Index grew at a faster rate than all other manufacturers, showing a 36 percent improvement over last year.

The midsize Verona sedan is the firstborn in the new Suzuki family and the rock upon which the brand will begin to build its strategy for success. Verona comes in three trim levels — S, LX and EX — and will be marketed to highlight its safety, dependability and value.

The base level S comes with an inline six-cylinder 2.5-liter engine making 155 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque. A four-speed adaptive automatic transmission and four-wheel disc brakes are standard. Other standard features include air conditioning, power windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lamps, heated power mirrors, and AM/FM/CD/cassette player with six speakers and steering-wheel-mounted controls. Up one trim level, the LX version adds automatic climate control, alloy wheels and ABS; high-end EX models come with a power sunroof, heated leather seats and an eight-way power driver’s seat. Traction control is offered as an option on the EX.

The Verona S starts at $16,499; LX is $17,799, and EX begins at $19,499.

All carry Suzuki’s “Open Road Promise” with a seven-year/100,000-mile powertrain limited warranty, Roadside Assistance and a Warranty Repair Courtesy Car program.

The nonluxury, midsize sedan segment is seldom thought of as having innovative design. Typically, cars tend to be attractive but practical, with a focus on creature comforts and a smooth ride. Verona does not depart entirely from that aesthetic, but it does breathe new life into it.

Designed by Italdesign in Turin, Italy, the new sedan cuts a sporty, Euro-inspired profile. A low front air dam sweeps back to a steeply raked hood. The roofline rises slightly back to the B-pillar, where it gently curves down to a pert, overhanging trunk lip. Overall, the lines create a slightly crouching, aerodynamic stance. The large greenhouse, created by raked glass both front and rear, provides maximum visibility. Wheels and tires are 15 inches, but generous wheel wells give the impression of a larger size.

Other style elements include under-bumper driving lights, energetic multireflector jewel-type halogen headlights and aggressive fender flares. Built-in slots allow for quick and easy installation of roof racks for bikes, kayaks and other gear; door handles and belt-line accents are body-color, adding an elegant touch.

Inside Suzuki’s latest offering is a comfortable, capable cabin that is made for five but seats four comfortably. Drivers will find a clean, modern layout behind the wheel, where a three-gauge cluster prominently features the speedometer in the center circle, with tach and oil pressure/gasoline gauges on either side. The center dash layout is straightforward, with thoughtful touches such as an ambient temperature display.

Hiproom and legroom are generous for all passengers. A 13.4-cubic-foot trunk provides space for several suitcases or the weekly groceries, dry cleaning and the kids’ sport gear.

Wood grain accents are found throughout the cockpit, and even at the basic Verona S trim level there are luxury touches such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, tilt steering, six-way adjustable driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar support, rear heating vents, six-speaker CD stereo, micron-filtered air conditioning and a padded fold-down rear center armrest. Illuminated vanity mirrors, heated exterior mirrors and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls also are standard equipment.

The up-level LX adds a few amenities, notably ABS, alloy wheels and automatic climate control, while the top-of-the-lineup EX has heated leather seats, a power sunroof and eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat.

This new car offers the only standard six-cylinder among its main competitive set, which includes the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Hyundai Sonata. The all-aluminum, DOHC, 24-valve inline-six-cylinder engine is transverse-mounted. It produces 155 horses at 5,800 rpm and class-leading 177 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm, Verona combines respectable raw power with enough boost in the midrange of the torque band for highway passing and quick maneuvers.

Although only equipped with four speeds, the standard transmission also comes with a brain: Its computer is designed to be adaptive by learning each driver’s unique style and change its shifting style as necessary to improve performance.

Four-wheel disc brakes are an upgrade from the front-disc/rear drum configuration found on some of the competition. ABS is available on the LX and EX models and matched to EBD. Front dual-stage air bags are standard, as are three-point safety belts on all seating positions.

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