- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

The idea behind the XL-7 is simple: Take the Grand Vitara, Suzuki’s top-line SUV, and literally stretch the point. The XL-7 is 19 inches longer than Grand Vitara and rides on a 12.6 inch longer wheelbase. The advantage of the additional length is more room inside. The upright lines of the XL-7 make for fine headroom, and there is more legroom in the front and second-row seats. However, the long interior is a bit on the narrow side. Therefore, while Suzuki calls the XL-7 a five-seater, four is a more comfortable fit. Add the optional third-row seat and you pick up room for two more children, though they’ll need to be limber to get in and out.

Up front, the cabin is well appointed and comfortable, especially in the top-line, Limited version. Controls are logical and well placed — rheostats for HVAC, column-mounted stalks for lights and wipers. Cruise control and redundant switchgear for the sound system are integrated into the steering wheel.

Another benefit that you’d expect from a stretched platform is more cargo room, and the XL-7’s got it. In standard, two-row configuration, there’s a generous 37 cubic feet of space available. Add a third row for people and you subtract room for stuff, of course. Capacity in that case drops to a skimpy 6.6 cubic feet. However, flop the seats forward and you’re up to 75.1 cubic feet. That’s long enough and just wide enough, for example, to slide a full-size mountain bike in without removing the front wheel. The downside on the inside includes second-row seats that are slow to fold/unfold, a balky, retractable cover to shield contents, and a rear access door that is hinged on the right side — the wrong side when you’re parked curbside.

XL-7 buyers can choose from rear- or four-wheel drive. The 4x4 system has low-range gearing and shift on the fly, plus high-range capability. The Suzuki system is not intended for use on dry pavement. The driver switches into 4x4 modes by accessing the console-mounted lever. For those with off-road intentions, there’s 7.5 inches of ground clearance, with approach and departure angles of 27.3 and 22.6 degrees respectively. The standard-issue all-season tread does not feel especially grippy on- or off-road, so buyers with serious intent to muddy up their SUV may consider a tire change. The ladder frame houses a MacPherson-strut front suspension and a coil springs/links, live-axle design in back. The XL’s long wheelbase makes for a good road ride on smooth surfaces. Bumps and potholes produce some bobbing and weaving though, and steering feel is rather numb.

One engine and two transmission choices are offered. Suzuki modified the 2.5-liter V-6 found in the Grand Vitara, enlarging it to a 2.7-liter displacement for the XL. Rated at 183 horsepower and 180 foot-pounds of torque, the power flow is smooth and matches well with either the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

However, a loaded, Limited 4x4 model such as my test truck, weighs in at about 3,700 pounds, giving a modest weight-to-power ratio. Acceleration in high-demand situations, such as passing or on-ramp merges, feels leisurely. The XL is rated to tow 3,000 pounds, which would not figure to improve the power issues.

Gas mileage for 4x4 models is the same regardless of transmission choice: 17 miles per gallon city and 20 mpg highway — by EPA’s reckoning. Likewise, the choice of rear- or four-wheel drive does little to alter the numbers. A rear-wheel-drive model with five-speed manual transmission returns 18 mpg city and 20 mpg highway.

Two trim levels are offered, Touring and Limited. Stepping up from the former to the latter adds the following standard equipment: four-speed automatic transmission, automatic climate control, power tilt-and-slide sunroof, leather seats, four-wheel ABS, alloy wheels, fog lamps, a rear spoiler and an upgraded, seven-speaker, six-disc sound system. Prices range from just under $20,000 for a rear-wheel-drive Touring model to just over $26,000 for a loaded, 4x4 Limited.

The XL-7 straddles two highly competitive markets — the compact and midsize sport utility segments. Its stretched platform puts it ahead of many of its compact class rivals when it comes to storage space and back-seat dimensions.

However, in the case of the up-level Limited model, the added price boosts the XL into the same market as some very refined and established midsize competitors. Gaining traction in this company is a chore for any 4x4.

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