- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

In Japan, where it is the third largest-selling automobile brand, Suzuki is a big fish in a little pond.

But in the United States, it is a little fish in a big pond, perhaps more widely known for its motorcycles than its cars and sport utility vehicles.

The company is moving aggressively to change that state of affairs, and it has some tantalizing new bait. They are the 2007 SX4 and XL7. Both are located in the increasingly popular crossover segment, where the vehicles are neither station wagons nor SUVs, but an amalgamation of the two.

The XL7 is the more ambitious undertaking. It is a seven-passenger crossover SUV that is aimed directly at the popular Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

Its basic architecture was developed by General Motors, a Suzuki partner, for the Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent crossovers. But there’s little resemblance, and Suzuki’s designers say there are more than 600 different parts.

It starts with the 3.6-liter V-6 engine, which delivers 252 horsepower to either the front wheels or all four wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode.

The XL7 (no hyphen) replaces the 2006 XL-7 (with hyphen), which is a body-on-frame truck-based SUV. The Suzuki folks don’t believe many customers will be confused by the metamorphosis from truck to crossover because the vast majority of them don’t know much about Suzuki anyway.

In most respects, the XL7 is fully competitive as a midsize, car-based crossover. It offers plenty of power, as well as decent handling, a full load of amenities and a seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty on the drive train.

The price starts at $22,534 for a front-drive base model with five-passenger seating and tops out at $32,384 for a loaded Limited model with all-wheel drive and seating for seven. Suzuki hopes to sell about 40,000 a year.

Of perhaps more interest in the new era of higher fuel prices is the all-new SX4, a small, five-passenger, four-door hatchback that Suzuki hails as the most affordable all-wheel-drive vehicle in the United States.

The standard all-wheel-drive system is unique in that it allows the driver to switch from front-drive (for maximum fuel economy) to automatic all-wheel drive (for best traction) to a four-wheel-drive lockup mode (for mild off-road duty or other challenging conditions).

Other equipment in the $15,894 base price includes antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, remote locking, an AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, power windows and mirrors, and 16-inch alloy wheels.

The test car also had cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and redundant steering-wheel audio controls, which brought the sticker price up to $15,894.

There’s only one engine: a 143-horsepower, 2-liter four-cylinder. It is linked to a five-speed manual gearbox. A four-speed automatic transmission is a $1,000 option.

With the standard all-wheel drive, the car the SX4 most resembles in concept is the Subaru Impreza wagon, which has been around for years and has a starting price more than $3,000 higher than the SX4.

Suzuki consulted with Italian designers to craft an unusual, somewhat tall hatchback four-door with sizable triangular side windows forward of the front doors, which improves visibility.

Inside, there’s comfortable cloth seating for four, and even a fifth passenger in back if you don’t mind a bit of a squeeze. The back seat is split 60-40, and the two parts tumble forward for increased cargo space. With the seats up, the cargo space is about 16 cubic feet — or what you’d find in some midsize and full-size cars. With the seats folded, there’s 54 cubic feet available.

Interior workmanship and materials are several steps above traditional economy fare, with tasteful vinyl and faux metal trim.

Manual seat adjustments include one for height. The seating position is high, but not so high as to eliminate a sporty feel on the road.

Acceleration is sprightly with the five-speed stick shift, which has a positive linkage but gates that are so close together it’s sometimes possible to miss the 2-3 shift and go directly into fifth gear. As expected, acceleration with the automatic is more leisurely, though the shifts are smooth.

Off road, as long as the terrain is not too rugged, the SX4 comports itself well, especially in the lockup mode, which is only available at speeds up to 36 mph. Above that it, switches into the automatic all-wheel-drive mode.

The standard all-wheel drive gives the SX4 a leg up on its burgeoning array of competitors, which includes the Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Scion xA, Toyota Matrix, Kia Rio, Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Aveo.

The SX4 replaces the Aerio SX, which is being dropped from the lineup because of tepid consumer response, despite the fact that the more wagonlike Aerio has better cargo space.

Suzuki has modest expectations for the SX4, projecting sales in the range of 12,000 to 15,000 a year. But if the word gets around, especially in foul-weather areas of the country, that could prove to be low.

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