2004 Suzuki XL-7 Preview

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There's something vaguely military about the silhouette of Suzuki's XL-7 sport-utility vehicle. But that's not why it brings to mind a recent confession of candor expressed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "You go to war with the army you have" is the unkind truth this secretary is accused of divulging.

At risk of trivializing a serious security issue concerning our armed forces, I am mindful of Rumsfeld's dictum when it comes to understanding just what motivation lies behind Suzuki's decision to bring a seven-passenger compact SUV to market. Ask the automakers who are scrambling to sell more than six dozen variations of SUV to a weary public what it's like out there, and they'll clamor in unison that it's like war. In the compact SUV category alone, where Suzuki's XL-7 struggles to survive, there are anywhere from 15 to 25 serious rivals, depending on how you cross-compare equivalent prices and sizes.

But it's a war whose spoils Suzuki seems determined to chase at all costs. Or, to put it in Rumsfeld's idiom, to chase with the SUV you happen to have at the time.

With its 110-inch wheelbase, the XL-7 is certainly compact enough to maneuver well in traffic and in search of tight parking. It's not alone in this capability, of course; Ford's Escape, Mazda's Tribute, Honda's CR-V, Hyundai's Santa Fe, and others all share Suzuki's compact traits. How Suzuki means to trump its rivals is with the XL-7's unique ability to provide seating for seven within cabin space its rivals reserve merely for five.

Worth the cost?

It's not clear that this particular trump has been worth it. On the one hand, there's the ancient precept that you can't stuff 50 pounds of, well, whatever into a 40-pound sack. Something's gotta give; and in the XL-7's case, it's two passengers' tempers at being relegated, or rather sentenced to the way-back seats. These seats are hard to reach and hard to tolerate once you do-no matter how long or short your inseam is.

2005 Suzuki XL-7

2005 Suzuki XL-7

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On the other hand, it appears that Suzuki has unavoidably compromised certain aspects of its compact sport-ute in the quest for larger seating capacity. Take cargo, for instance. With all seats in use, there are just 6.6 cubic feet of usable trunk space-about the same as with Mazda's tweensie Miata. You can tump the third row to make way for 43 cubes, or tump rows three and two to obtain maximum space of 75 cubic feet. Whereas the latter two figures are fairly representative of the compact SUV class, the seats don't fold nicely flat. There are angles and void spaces that can complicate the way loads must be arranged.

The XL-7's price is certainly a strong suit. A seven-passenger SUV available for as low as $21,000 is something of a breakthrough. Even the top-of-the-line "EX III" model tested here costs just $27,799 for all the bells and whistles, including four-wheel-drive, a six-CD player, leather upholstery, sunroof, fog lamps, and tire-pressure monitor. Suzuki sweetens the pot with one of the auto industry's most generous powertrain warranties: seven years or 100,000 miles. This coverage, moreover, is transferable should the vehicle be sold while the warranty is still in effect.

There's no question that these terms can whet SUV shoppers' appetites. All the more reason, then, to be aware of what features the XL-7 can't afford to offer for its price. For one thing, there's performance-or the lack thereof. A 2.7-liter V-6 lies underhood and musters 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Nothing wrong with these specs...unless your vehicle weighs almost two tons (i.e., 3759 pounds). This weight, despite the sophistication of the engine's twin-cam layout, is undoubtedly the proximate cause of ungenerous fuel-economy, rated at 17 mpg city, 22 mpg highway.

The XL-7 feels dowdy in traffic and on the highway. Then there's the issue of the dated suspension layout. A solid rear axle and rear drum brakes help cut costs appreciably, but they also impose a certain heavy-handedness upon the XL-7's cornering abilities. It's not a racer nor is meant to be, of course; but it is a competitor in a rambunctious market category that boasts rival vehicles with superior ride and handling characteristics.

Suzuki touts the XL-7's "highest rating" in 40-mph frontal crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and this is a fine accomplishment. Why, then, is it offset by the unavailability of side-impact airbags, even as an option? At least anti-lock brakes are optional with the XL-7, but in a competitive SUV category where premium safety features are included as standard equipment by other manufacturers, the XL-7 appears unwisely under-armored, to say the least.

In the final analysis, it is all a matter of production and capability in the battles one chooses to fight. Suzuki, unabashedly a small player on the automotive scene, has every intention of mixing it up with the big boys. But Suzuki can only bring to market what its resources will allow. It's admirable to play David confronting Goliath, but if your aim is off the mark, you're gonna get whupped.


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2005 Suzuki XL-7 EX III
Base price:
Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 185 hp/184 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual or automatic, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 187.4 x 70.1 x 68.5 inches
Wheelbase: 110.2 inches
Curb weight: 3759 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 17/22 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, tire-pressure monitor
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD changer; leather trim; fog lamps; sunroof
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles basic; seven-year, 100,000-mile powertrain

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