- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Things are mighty crowded at the bottom of the automotive food chain. With more than 20 nameplates in the subcompact segment, entry-level shoppers are faced with a dizzying array of choices. Fiscal sense tells us that that’s a lot of vehicles vying for market share at a price point earning very little in the way of profit for their respective brands.

Low prices and high standard content are the conspirators responsible for suppressing profit margins. However, despite low profitability, the battle rages on and the consumer is the big winner.

Apparently not intimidated by the more established brands, Suzuki continues butting heads with them in the lower tiers of both the automotive and SUV markets. Its Aerio — introduced to replace the Esteem in 2002 — continues improving year over year.

It now boasts the most powerful standard engine in the subcompact class and a standard equipment list that must have bean counters at Suzuki reaching for the Maalox.

While a sedan, available in two trim levels, is offered; the fun version of the Aerio is the more substantial-looking SX wagon. Designed for younger drivers who don’t want or can’t afford an SUV, the SX can be fitted with Suzuki’s QuadGrip all-wheel drive.

Measuring 166.5 inches from stem to stern, the SX gives up some overall length to most of its competitors. It’s close to the Honda Civic hatchback (165.6 inches) and the Hyundai Accent hatchback (166.7 inches), but is dwarfed by the Saturn Ion coupe (185 inches) and the Kia Spectra hatchback (178.1 inches). However, when taking its measure inside, the SX is unrivaled in headroom (40.6 inches) and well in the middle of the pack in front and rear-seat legroom. Cargo space is healthy, too. With the rear seat in use, there is 21.3 cubic feet of luggage room. This balloons up to 63.7 cubic feet with the split rear seat folded down. It’s a handy-size vehicle for hauling people or stuff.

Only one engine is available regardless of the model or trim level. Making its appearance last year as the replacement for the 145-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder that powered Aerios in 2002-2003, the 2.3-liter four-banger put Aerio at the top of the subcompact heap in terms of engine performance. Developing 155 ponies and 152 foot-pounds of torque, this engine can be mated to the standard five-speed manual transmission or to an optional four-speed automatic ($800). The manual shifts without complaint while keeping the driver fully involved in wringing the most from the energetic engine. At 25 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway, the Environmental Protection Agency ranking should give the anti-SUV folks some reason to cheer.

Buyers looking for some extra confidence in foul weather can choose an SX with all-wheel drive. Suzuki calls its system QuadGrip. Most of the time it focuses engine output on the front wheels. But when it senses any wheel spin, it can automatically divert as much as 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels. This is strictly a system for added stability and traction on slippery surfaces. It has no four-wheel low gear for taking it off road. Forget about stirring the transmission if you go for the AWD package. The automatic transmission is the only one available with QuadGrip. The added cost for AWD including the four-speed is $1,800.

Anti-roll bars both fore and aft help firm up the fully independent MacPherson strut suspension. This isn’t enough to completely compensate for the Aerio’s high center of gravity, but body roll is minimized. Discs up front and drums in the rear are the standard brake system. Going for the four-disc brake option with antilock will set you back another $500.

Several enhancements have been made to the SX cabin for 2005. The center console and seat fabric are new. A new outside temperature/clock display has been added. Redundant audio buttons have sprouted on the new steering wheel. They provide the control for a new seven-speaker audio system with six-disc CD changer that’s standard in all Aerios. The instrument panel is redesigned. Other standard gear includes power door locks with remote keyless entry, power windows, tilt steering wheel and cruise control. Blunting criticism that side-impact air bags weren’t even offered as an option last year, this year they are standard on all versions of the Aerio.

All of the standard features somewhat overshadow the use of a few cheesy materials inside. But Aerio does compete in the $13,000-to-$16,000 segment, so it may not be fair to expect all the fixin’s to be high end. One complaint though is with the power outboard mirrors. They don’t have enough travel to pick up the blind spot off the rear quarter panel. The driver must turn his head to make certain that area is clear before changing lanes. Another inch of outward flair would solve the problem.

Base price of the Suzuki Aerio SX is $15,449, and that includes the destination charge. It’s certainly worth a look to anyone shopping for a subcompact.

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