It's a fairly well-documented fact that babies and dogs are excellent 'vehicles' for picking up members of the opposite sex. Well, we've got something that's equally effective, but a lot more low maintenance. It's the Suzuki X-90, a two-passenger cross between a compact car and a sport utility that looks like nothing else on the road. You won't have to walk it or change its diapers - just bask in the glow of all the attention it brings. She: Cartoonish. That's what I think when I look at the X-90. It looks like a Hot Wheels car that's been plumped up with steroids. A real huggable head-turner. And for a mini sport Ute, it's so affordable with a base price of $15,000. But you can't put a price tag on the reaction we've had zipping around town in it. He: Yeah, especially that cute blond. She: I couldn't believe she came running up to you as soon as we parked it. But it was clear to me she had no imagination. After all, she was wearing hiking boots and shorts and eating a frozen yogurt. For once I'd like to see a skinny, gorgeous blonde with a Big Mac. He: She said she liked the Suzuki's 'European lines.' I didn't want to break the spell by telling her it was Japanese. Or by revealing any of its flaws, which are considerable. She: But at least Suzuki paid attention to safety and outfitted the X-90 with standard features like dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights and a rear defogger. And I love all the fun details like the removable T-top roof panels, which are a snap to pop out, even if you're by yourself. And if you don't want to go to all that trouble, you can twist out the roof shades in seconds and let the sun shine in. He: You're starting to sound like a dopey Flower Child. She: Well, the idea for the X-90 didn't come too far from San Francisco. I've read that Suzuki executives got the inspiration for the two-seater from the street-equipped two-door Sidekicks they'd see bopping around Orange County, Calif. He: I wish they would have been inspired to put together a better package. Let's start with the gas mileage. For a tiny little two-seater, it should have been over 30 miles per gallon and it wasn't. We averaged just over 27. Paint quality is atrocious. Looks like it was laid on with a feather duster. The noise inside the cabin is annoying, especially from the buzzy engine. And the workmanship was not up to Suzuki's usual high standards. I noticed several plastic trim pieces behind the seats had popped up and couldn't be refastened. She: Geez, you sound like a cranky old grandpa. What about all the value you get in the X-90? You don't even have to pay extra for things like power windows and locks, full carpeting, cruise control, tinted glass and power steering. ... He: Since you brought up the power steering, shouldn't you mention that the Suzuki is surprisingly difficult to park and to maneuver at low speeds? That rack-and-pinion unit feels soggy and leaden . And the short wheelbase and tall center of gravity on the X-90 make cornering pretty thrilling. The body tends to lean into turns and the vehicle is not as nimble as you'd expect a two-seater to be. It bucks and hops over rough pavement like a carnival ride. She: That's to remind you that you're alive, silly. But this isn't strictly a kid's car. I can see both young and older drivers getting into this. If I were a real hip grandma, I might buy one just because it's so affordable and unexpected - and fun. He: Grandma? Are you trying to tell me something? She: And the X-90 has four-wheel drive, so it's sensible, too. The upholstery really fits the image - neon blue and yellow. Kind of looks like a pair of Umbro shorts. He: I take Umbro-age with that remark. Can we talk about power? Or, in the case of the X-90, the lack of power? The engine makes 95 horsepower and should feel peppier than it does, considering the car only weighs about 2,300 pounds. And the engin s noisy and coarse, particularly at higher RPM. She: Wow. Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed or what? He: I suppose you've got no gripes about the X-90? She: Just a few minor ones. The trunk only offers 8.4 cubic feet of storage space and that shrinks even more if you stow the roof panels back there. And liftover is tall enough to pose a problem if you're on the short side. Also, the buttons on the fancy Alpine radio are some of the tiniest I've ever seen. If you sew and use pearl-headed straight pins, those heads are about the size of the control buttons. So that would pose a problem if your eyesight isn't the greatest or you've got arthritis. He: Sounds like the target audience to me. Honey, I don't think the radio controls are going to be a problem for the 20-somethings who are liable to flock to this thing. So let's tell the truth. She: The truth is that the Suzuki X-90 is one of the most exciting vehicles on the road this year. He: The truth is that the Suzuki X-90 is one of the dumbest vehicles on the road this year. Unless, of course, you have blond hair and like frozen yogurt and 'European lines.' Anita's rating: (world class) Paul's rating: (below average) What we liked: It's a people magnet (Anita); Good standard safety features; Affordable; Fun details like T-top roof; In a class by itself What we didn't like: Rough ride; Coarse engine; Difficult to steer at low speeds; Radio controls too tiny; Limited trunk space 1996 Suzuki X-90 Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, two-passenger mini-sport utility vehicle. Price: Base, $14,999; as tested, $15,389 (inc. $390 destination charge). What's new for '96: All-new for 1996. Standard equipment: Power steering, power windows, power door locks, removable T-tops, alloy wheels. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights. Options on test vehicle: None. EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway. Engine: 1.6-liter I-4; 95-hp at 5600 rpm; 98 lb-ft torque at 4000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed manual. Competitors: Geo Tracker 2-door, Suzuki Sidekick 2-door. Specifications: Wheelbase, 86.6 inches; overall length, 145.9 inches; curb weight, 2321 pounds. 12-month insurance cost*: $982 Where built: Kosai, Japan.
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