- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

If you like your SUVs compact, capable and relatively inexpensive, Suzuki’s XL-7 4WD fits the bill. Possessing all the glamour and polish of Mickey Rourke attending a cockfight, the XL-7 is a down and dirty performer that puts utility ahead of image.

Not much danger here of the yuppies crowding around it asking questions in the parking lot of your favorite boutique coffee bar. On the other hand, if you have a favorite boutique coffee bar, this may not be the SUV for you. Unpretentious in appearance and somewhat unrefined in performance, this truck-based off-roader is the relative the Ford Escape and Toyota Highlander give movie money to when company comes calling; however, in a barroom brawl, it’s the one they’d want watching their backs.

In this day of crossover, car-based compact SUVs, the XL-7 fits in like a pair of work boots at a black-tie social. There are only three reasons you would probably opt for it rather than one of its more refined competitors: price, passenger capacity and/or true off-road capability (4WD). Any one of these reasons might motivate a buyer, but as a group they are fairly compelling.

Although still offered in two trim levels, its LX and EX monikers have been replaced with the more self-explanatory base and Premium labels for 2006. Even the base $24,294 XL-7 two-wheel drive is loaded with standard features such as air conditioning with front/rear climate control, six-speaker audio system with a CD player and wiring for XM satellite radio, cruise control and a tilt steering wheel with redundant audio controls.

Adding four-wheel drive boosts the price by $1,200. Ponying up another $1,800 adds the Premium package with its leather seating, running boards, power sunroof and an upgraded audio system with in-dash six-disc CD deck and a subwoofer. It has a clear price advantage over most of its comparably equipped competitors.

The only engine is a 185-horsepower 2.7-liter V-6. This is less grunt than the V-6s in competitors like the Highlander and Escape provide, but it gets the XL-7 off the line with acceptable gusto.

A five-speed automatic is the sole transmission offered to distribute power to the wheels. Making the switch between rear- and four-wheel drive is achieved through a system Suzuki calls DriveSelect. A push-button arrangement, it can shift into 4WD on the fly and has a low setting for more aggressive off-road challenges. Giving up a mile per gallon or so to its key competitors, the XL-7 earned an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 17 mpg in the city and 22 on the open highway.

Where the XL-7’s off-road prowess takes its toll is in ride comfort.

Because it is truck-based and a legitimate off-roader, its ride lacks the sedan feel of most of its segment peers. It’s a bit jouncy over rougher surfaces. The MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear suspension provide better-than-expected handling. A comparatively tight turning radius makes for impressive maneuverability.

Ground clearance is 7.6 inches. This is nearly an inch less than the Subaru Tribeca, a half inch less than Escape and about the same as Highlander.

Meaty 16-inch tires surround the alloy wheels, offering plenty of grip. They are backed up by disc brakes on all four corners monitored by an antilock system.

Boasting the only third seat in its segment, the XL-7 can theoretically hold up to seven persons — theoretically. The problem isn’t so much an issue of legroom as it is hip and shoulder room. Adults who are 5 feet 9 inches or shorter can coexist rather nicely in the second- and third-row seats. It requires a bit of compromise on everyone’s part, but thanks to the fore/aft adjustment in the second-row seat and reclining seatbacks, an acceptable amount of comfort can be achieved.

However, attempting to shoehorn three persons across either the second or third row — particularly the third row — is like trying to stuff 2 pounds of sausage in a 1-pound skin. Only someone whose life you’ve saved would willingly take the middle position in either of the rear seats.

With the third-row seat in use, cargo space is practically nonexistent; however the floor opens to reveal a shallow sectioned storage bin.

Folding down the split third seat provides plenty of hauling room — more than 40 cubic feet. While it doesn’t exactly fold flat, it provides a relatively level floor. The second-row split seat also folds down and adds another 30 or so cubic feet of cargo space.

The seats could all use more cushioning. The front buckets are comfortable enough, though. Generally the interior won’t be confused with that of a high-end SUV. Everything is conveniently arranged, but it’s obvious the quality of the interior materials have contributed to achieving the XL-7’s low price point.

For the money, the XL-7 offers lots of versatility. It’s a competent, if not elegant, SUV that provides a combination of features not found in any other competitor.

One gripe, however, is the lack of travel in the power outboard mirrors. They simply won’t flare out far enough to cover the blind spot not covered by the inside rearview mirror and the driver’s peripheral vision along the XL-7’s flanks.

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