1988 Suzuki Samurai

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$3,668–$8,484

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chicagotribune.com
The Hula-Hoop. The Pet Rock. And the Suzuki Samurai.

This nation has an obsession for fads. Each has its day. The Samurai currently is enjoying such popularity that the Japanese manufacturer is selling the four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle faster than workers on the home island can produce them.

And this fall, thanks to a joint venture with Suzuki, General Motors Corp. will offer a version of the Samurai called the Chevrolet Tracker.

It`s easy to understand the popularity. The Samurai is cute in hardtop or convertible softtop version.

The nice things said, let`s get on to the criticism. The Samurai is cute, but crude. The Samurai is to utility vehicles as the Yugo is to cars. It`s cheap, roughly half the price of a larger and more civilized Cherokee.

The first objection to the Samurai is size. It`s built on a 79.9-inch wheelbase and is only 135 inches long overall.

By comparison, a two-seater Honda CRX is built on an 86.6-inch wheelbase and is 144.7 inches long overall. Curb weight on the convertible we drove was 2,094 pounds.

There`s not a lot of protection around you.

Then there`s the noise. Not too many of those 2,094 pounds consist of insulation. After a few miles, you feel as if you`ve just reached an altitude of 35,000 feet in a 747 and the captain depressurized the cabin. The flimsy plastic and canvas convertible top provides little barrier to noise.

A warning label for the top cautions: ``The canvas top of this vehicle is provided only to offer some protection against undesirable weather conditions. It is not designed to hold occupants inside the vehicle or to protect against intrusion of foreign objects in the event of an accident.``

With the Samurai being a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle, you expect ride and handling to be a bit coarse. The Samurai lives up to expectations and even exceeds them.

Don`t take corners at speed. Don`t even take tar marks in the road with any excess because the buckboard ride is harsh enough on smooth, dry roadway. To take this four-wheel-drive machine off the road, you need to be off the wall.

We called the folks at Suzuki for some details on the vehicle we drove. The young woman answering the phone nearly took our breath away when she said the unit was ``an upgrade, the Deluxe model.``

How could there be a model offering less than the Deluxe we saddled up on?

The JX version we drove didn`t have a rear seat. Instead, the back end is a flat metal cargo bed. Seats for two run $395. The owner of a Samurai without the rear seats would be wise to stick a carpet remnant in back over the exposed metal floor to deaden the sound.

The Samurai we drove was an improvement over last year`s model. Suzuki said it ``refined`` the machine by redesigning the suspension to improve ride quality. It reduced the number of leaf springs to three from four up front whil e reducing their thickness. It kept four leafs in back but reduced thickness and recalibrated shock absorber rates. The front stabilizer bar is thicker to compensate for softer springs.

A foam- or feather-filled pillow still would be a wise investment.

The vehicle is powered, make that put in motion, by a 1.3-liter, 4- cylinder engine teamed with a 5-speed manual transmission. Fifth-gear acceleration has been improved from last year by enlarging the size of the gear, which also reduces noise, Suzuki said.

There appears to be a bit more pep off the line, but with the gyroscope- like ride and handling, the ability to obtain a bit more speed wouldn`t be at the top of our list of Samurai needs.

Standard equipment includes four-wheel drive, 5-speed manual transmission, key-locked fuel tank, reclining front seats, two-speed intermittent wipers and front carpets. The Deluxe adds tachometer, AM-FM stereo cassette with built-in clock, deluxe seats and i nterior trim, passenger-side vanity mirror, exterior striping and a color-coordinated Suzuki decal in back.

The Samurai is a tiny, lightweight vehicle that should be sold through Frederick`s of Hollywood. Though small in size, the Samurai is no mini in price. The standard convertible starts at $8,495, the standard hardtop at $8,595. The Deluxe convertible jumps to $9,495, the Deluxe hardtop to $9,590. The Samurai has attracted youngsters in droves. That`s just the group of motorists most in need of size and weight around them in their early driving years while accumulating mileage and experience.

As for the Tracker that comes out this fall, Chevy officials promise it won`t be a Samurai with a Chevy bow tie on the grille. They promise it will be longer and wider and lower, for a better center of gravity and improved ride, handling and stability.

If Chevy recognizes the need for a longer, wider, lower vehicle with improved stability, you have to wonder about the wisdom of rushing out for a Samurai now.




    Expert Reviews 1 of 2

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