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1991 Suzuki Sidekick

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    Expert Reviews 1 of 2
1991 Suzuki Sidekick
$ 3,267-4,207
May 30, 1991

The Suzuki Sidekick is the least expensive four-door, four-wheel-drive, sport-utility vehicle in America today.

Such status, however, does not come cheap.

The base Sidekick may be priced at $11,999--which makes it $500 more affordable than the Isuzu Rodeo--but the very real costs are a mechanical trade-off here, a performance compromise there and subtle downgradings everywhere.

Among these dubiously happy mediums:

* A four-cylinder, 1.6-liter engine that develops 80 horsepower. Or half the oomph of a Chevy Blazer. This is not a great deal of muscle for moving a 2,650-pound Sidekick, four campers and their 10-day supply of freeze-dried endive to California's higher elevations.

* On the straight and level, even with a five-speed manual transmission, the Sidekick accelerates from rest several seconds slower than Subaru Justy, Ford Festiva or a Greyhound bus.

* With an optional three-speed automatic, the performance degenerates from lethargy to mechanical mononucleosis.

* There is no push-button 4WD. When transitioning from hardtop to mud or crumbling tundra, drivers must exit the vehicle and manually lock the hubs. This will be no fun when crouching in dark and slush somewhere between Grass Valley and St. George, Utah. This is not to say that the Sidekick is a miskick. Far from it. Although the freeway athletics may be less than Olympian, its off-road performance is all high-country and Eddie Bauer.

We dallied in the dirt for an afternoon at Bob Hope's Jordan Ranch, courtesy of American Suzuki Motor Corp. and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. The smart Sidekick certainly generated as many chuckles as the back country's previous tenant: the cast and production crew of "Back to the Future III."

Over hill, over dale, this little caisson rolled along with a death grip on whatever it happened to be traversing. Climbs were steep and at times hub-deep in dust. One particularly unhappy trail rose and dwindled to a goat rut that became an angled shelf clinging for dear life to a cliff.

There was no place to turn, zero width for reversing and barely enough room to pray. The only encouragement was much hand-waving by a distant group of Suzuki representatives.

So the Sidekick was spurred forward, grinding and lurching in 4WD, butting rocks aside, bucking against gravity until it rejoined a relieved official party. Their hand signaling, it turned out, had been a frantic attempt to wave off passage along the previously impassable track.

That sweaty cliffhanger was enormous proof of the Sidekick as a stable, manageable off-road system. The front strut and rear coil suspension (most sport-utes remain locked to leaf springs in the rear) soaked up extremes of movement around all axes and tamed any sense of tipping. Steering and wheels tracked true despite some almighty wallops against rocks and ruts. In first gear, that 80 horsepower, deli vering 94 pounds of torque, was more than enough for full traction with a broad margin against wheel-spin.

Unfortunately, horsepower that is ideal for the sod is soon exhausted on interstates. Steering and a suspension that cushions against moonscapes tend to be spongy and encourage wallow on simple asphalt, especially when threading through traffic. Short, low gearing for maximum flexibility on dirt may run out of revs and start screeching at highway speeds.

Ergo, success in the science of manufacturing sport-utility vehicles rests with finding the marketable middle ground between roles. The bias of the Sidekick, unfortunately, seems to be with its function as sod-thumper--and studies show that less than 10% of 4WD owners take their vehicles over anything much more rugged than a Renaissance Faire parking lot.

Yet the Sidekick certainly is attractive. Not cute, thank heavens, like its stablemate the Samurai. But handsome, unpretentious, uncluttered an with the quality fit and finish of a $20,000 vehicle. There's also enough rake to the silhouette and sufficient softness to the edges to make the vehicle look much more sport than utility.

Graduating to four doors (a two-door Sidekick remains in production and nationalists may also purchase it as the Chevrolet-Geo Tracker) required stretching the chassis by 12 inches. The result is rear legroom comfortably close to that offered by the Isuzu Trooper and Toyota 4-Runner, and rear headroom greater than skull space offered by the Rodeo, Nissan Pathfinder and Jeep Cherokee.

The four-door Sidekick is produced as the JX at a base price of $11,999 and as the JLX for$12,999. Power steering, underside skid plates, anti-lock rear brakes and fold-down rear seats (creating a total of 46 cubic feet of cargo space) are standard on both models. So are child-proof rear-door locks. The JLX comes with power windows, chrome wheels, tilt steering, split rear seat and other nifties.

Trays and open containers abound, but door storage is skimpy. The seats have something called "bolstered cushioning," the best feature of which is kidney grabbers for when the going gets jouncy.

A mediocre sound system is common to both JX and JLX. Or maybe it is the concert ofroad thrums and engine noise, a commonality of all sport utilities, that drowns out a generally adequate sound system.

With EPA gas figures of 23 m.p.g. city and 25 m.p.g highway, the Sidekick earns another superlative: It is the most fuel-efficient, four-door, four-wheel-drive, sport-utility in America. But a glutton for hyphens.

1991 Suzuki Sidekick JLX

The Good Excellent off-road performance. Fuel sniffer. Bottom draw price, top drawer looks. Interior space of a walk-in closet.

The Bad Sluggardly performance. Short-legged gear box. Spongy steering, mashed potato suspension on highway.

The Ugly Nowhere to be seen.

Cost Base: $12,999 As tested: $14,070, including optional air conditioning.

Engine 1.6 liters, four cylinders, single overhead cam engine developing 80 horsepower.

Type Rear drive, four-seat, 4WD sport-utility vehicle.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 16 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 105 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city-highway, 23-25 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,650 pounds.

    Expert Reviews 1 of 2

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