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First Drive

Suzuki Serves Up a Sumo-Sized SUV

November 15, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yell "Suzuki" in a crowded room in this country and, chances are, most people will look around for a motorcycle.

But the company also makes cars and sport-utility vehicles. In fact, Suzuki is the 11th-largest auto maker in the world, with 1999 sales of 1.8 million units around the globe. It even has the top-selling car in Japan (a mini-wagon unavailable in the United States).

And as with the products in its other lines--whether motorcycles. all-terrain vehicles or outboard motors for ski, pleasure and fishing boats--Suzuki's cars and trucks seem to get better with each new generation.

Which brings us to the 2001 Suzuki XL-7: the "XL" for extra large and "7" for the seventh sport-utility design the company has introduced in the U.S. since it created the mini-SUV category 15 years ago with the ill-fated Samurai.

The newest Suzuki is no Samurai.

That one looked like a miniature Jeep, cost about $5, barely carried four people in a spartan interior and rode like it was mounted on an unsprung chassis. But now and forever, it will be remembered less for those qualities than for its central role in a protracted legal fight with Consumers Union over a review that condemned it as unsafe.

The XL-7, due in showrooms next month, still is relatively inexpensive. Prices (including destination charges) run from $20,199 for the base two-wheel-drive model with five-speed manual transmission to $24,999 for the four-wheel-drive, automatic-transmission Touring model. But it holds up to seven people, has a fat list of standard features that are options on many competitors and rides quite well--on road and off. And it looks nothing like a Jeep; instead, it's a cross between a modern SUV and a minivan. (Suzuki calls it a "sleek, contemporary" style.)

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The XL-7 is the latest entry in that growing field of SUVs for the minivan- and wagon-averse. The difference is that this one is still a real SUV.

It comes with a rugged, off-road-ready truck frame and part-time four-wheel drive with a low range. Most of the so-called compact or mini-SUVs with which it will compete are crossovers that use car-like unibody construction for a gentler ride and get rid of the bulky off-roading transfer case on the theory that nobody really takes these things o'er hill and dale anyhow.

At 183.6 inches long, with a 110.2-inch wheelbase, the XL-7 is Suzuki's largest SUV ever. It has a full 18 inches on the 2001 Toyota RAV4, almost 10 inches on the new Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute and Hyundai Santa Fe, and 7 inches on the Honda CR-V--all vehicles Suzuki considers competitors.

And although the XL-7 is built on a tough steel ladder frame that lets it be truly an off-road sport-utility, its longer wheelbase, coupled with fat P235/60R16 tires, give it a fairly nice demeanor on the asphalt.

It is still a tallish SUV with a high center of gravity--the four-wheel-drive model stands 67.8 inches from road to rooftop and has 7.5 inches of ground clearance--and it shouldn't be hurled through corners like a sports car.

But the long wheelbase and 59.1-inch track, front and rear, gives the XL-7 a stable foundation, at least as we experienced it during a recent media test drive in Las Vegas. That extra length also provides for at least one creature comfort--rear-seat legroom--missing in some small SUVs.

In fact, the "7" in XL-7 also could stand for the seven passengers, spread over three rows of seats, who can fit into this stretched, strengthened and streamlined big sister to the Grand Vitara SUV that Suzuki introduced in 1998.

One neat trick that ought to become an industry standard as third-row seating becomes more prevalent in SUVs is the XL-7's sliding second-row seats.

Suzuki engineers mounted the split middle seats on spring-loaded tracks that enable them to be moved forward almost 4 inches with the flick of a switch. The sliders also have three fixed stops, so the mid-row seats can be individually adjusted to accommodate passengers with varied legroom requirements.

The XL-7's power plant is Suzuki's aluminum V-6, bored to 2.7 liters from the 2.5-liter version that comes standard in the Grand Vitara. The engine here is boosted to 170 horsepower and 178 foot-pounds of torque from the smaller engine's 155 ponies and 160 foot-pounds.

Standard features include micron-filtered air conditioning (with separate controls and outlets for back-seat passengers in all but the base models), power windows and door locks, remote key-less entry, power mirrors, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, halogen headlights, tinted glass and under-seat storage bins.

From the driver's seat, the XL-7 comes across as a well-mannered vehicle with plenty of acceleration, good brakes and a smooth-shifting automatic transmission that knows when to kick down into passing gear and, best of all, knows not to let up too soon. Acceleration from 65 to 80 mph is surprisingly strong.

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