Now, this was a vehicle that at least one Caribbean car rental agency used for rescuing the Jeep Wranglers that tourists would get stuck in beach sand. Bare-bones, diminutive and extremely light, the Samurai would only bog down when beset by build-quality gremlins.
I suppose the Consumer Reports staff recognized that the Samurai's intrinsic cuteness and low price would make it a favorite ride of ignorant teenagers, who would mistreat the little beast and get themselves killed for their troubles. Suzuki’s reaction to all this over the years this has been to steadily widen the track, add weight and lower the center of gravity over seven design generations, as well as ultimately bagging the “Samurai” brand name in favor of “Sidekick," then "Vitara,” and then, “Grand Vitara.”
The XL-7 bowed last year as a Grand Vitara line, with a wheelbase and overall length extension, and was an immediate hit. Lengthening the wheelbase by 13 inches to 110.2 inches and adding prodigiously wide second-seat doors gave this compact sport-ute an incredible amount of entrance ease and legroom, particularly when the second-row seats were mounted on individually adjustable rails. Slapping another seven inches of rear overhang provided room for a folding third-row seat, unprecedented in this segment.
2002 Suzuki XL7
This year, Suzuki drops the “Grand Vitara” moniker from the XL-7 to heighten its distinctiveness. The other major change is boosting horsepower of the 2.7-liter V-6 by 13 to 183 at 6000 rpm; torque, unfortunately, only went up 2 lb-ft, to 180 at 4000 rpm. Despite the “power” setting that can be used on the solely available four-speed (with overdrive) automatic transmission, the engine takes its sweet time gaining momentum.
The engine, however, is a sophisticated, smooth-running unit, designed to keep maintenance costs low. It rides on liquid-filled mounts to keep vibration from reaching the frame, and in turn, the body. An innovative two-stage timing chain (used instead of a rubber timing belt) is self-lubricating, self-adjusting and maintenance free. The direct-ignition system places the ignition coils over the spark plugs to eliminate the need for a distributor and high-tension ignition wires, and a direct-drive valvetrain automatically adjusts valve tappet clearance.
The XL-7 comes in a tough box. Front and rear crumple zones help dissipate crash energy, and the body structure is strategically reinforced. The XL-7's "A," "B" and "C" pillars are constructed of the same high-tensile steel used in the ladder box frame. To prevent intrusion into the passenger compartment, steel posts and side-impact beams feed loads into the structure.
The suspension bits probably do a better job executing the XL-7’s excellent off-road manners than promoting street ride. The MacPherson strut front suspension features separate coil springs and gas shocks that allow a tight turning circle and long suspension travel. The rear axle is positioned by a five-link system that closely controls lateral axle movement in the interest of precise handling, yet allows the wheel travel and articulation needed off-road. Nitrogen-charged dampers are used front and rear to provide more precise damping characteristics, even at the high operating temperatures generated off-road. Suzuki touts the vehicle's long 110.2-inch wheelbase as an aid in reducing chassis pitching, but said pitching is still noticeable on all but the smoothest highways.
Handling is very good, thanks to power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, a standard front lateral stabilizer bar and tower brace, and relatively wide, low-profile tires.
Somewhere in the underpinnings a mysterious, hollow “clunk” frequently sounds when the cruise control is cancelled or the brakes are applied. This may be an exhaust manifold hitting a frame member whenever the engine is detorqued, but I didn’t have the time to check it out in the week I had the car. This characteristic was shared by the XL-7 I tested last year.
2002 Suzuki XL7
Like the Sidekick before it, the XL-7 is a serious off-road performer. One might want more than the 7.5-inch ground clearance found in this longish, skid-plate-free sport-ute, but for sheer tractive ability the low gear range is a perfect match for the automatic tranny and suspension bits. The rocks, roots, ruts and ice of our local off-road trail were confidently navigated, even with the standard street tires.
Another legacy the XL-7 carries over from the Sidekick, unfortunately, is an extremely narrow cabin finished in cheap plastics—save for the seats. Call it hubris or face-saving on Suzuki’s part, but the company apparently still feels that it is important to maintain this one aspect of the Sidekick’s design legacy, and it’s a shame. Compared to the Honda CRV or the Ford/Mazda Escape/Tribute pair, the XL-7 Limited—touted by Suzuki for its roominess—lacks elbow room. The front-seat armrests are so thin they hang uselessly inside one’s elbows, although the seats themselves are firm and comfortable. The center console has funny, squared-off cupholders and no storage box. And the narrow roofline begets all-but-useless, narrow sun visors.
In this day and age, should a two-and-a-half-ton, V-6-powered, leather-upholstered sport-ute retain this vestige of mini-utilitarianism? Nope. Another two inches of cabin width would make the XL-7 a very good vehicle even better, but you get the feeling Suzuki will give up a narrow cabin as readily as Crockett, Bowie and company gave up the Alamo.
2002 Suzuki XL-7 Limited
Base price: $26,914; as tested: $27,309
Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 183 hp
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic transmission, transfer case, rear-/four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 183.6 x 70.1 x 68.0 in
Wheelbase: 110.2 in
Curb weight: 4916 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 17/20 mpg
Safety equipment: Four-wheel anti-lock brakes, first-aid kit, child seat anchor tethers, rear door safety locks, side impact beams, front seatbelt pretensioners
Major standard equipment (Limited): Front and rear air conditioning, leather seats, power sunroof, Clarion AM/FM stereo w/cassette and CD players, cruise control, adjustable second-row seats, heated side mirrors, 16x7 alloy wheels, fog lamps, running boards
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles