Whenever auto writers gather, someone inevitably remarks, "You know, nobody is building a really bad car anymore." Naturally, the comment sends the conversation back to some cars that were bad: Pintos, Toronados, Yugos, Kias, Hyundais, and Suzukis, among others.
The first three, of course, are riding the highway in the sky (or are broken down beside it). But Suzuki -- which provided today's test car, the XL7 -- is attempting to follow a trail successfully driven recently by Kia and Hyundai. Those companies have moved to the head of quality satisfaction ratings by offering 100,000-mile warranties and standard safety packages that include multiple air bags, an antilock brake system, traction control, and electronic stability control. It's a combination some more expensive brands have yet to match. And the Korean companies are meeting the most critical challenge for any firm trying to rehabilitate a tarnished reputation: getting people into showrooms.
Suzuki is attempting to do the same by improving quality, content, and safety, and by trying to keep prices down. If you're shopping for a crossover SUV with slightly better than moderate power, seating for five or seven, either front- or all-wheel -drive, and the full package of standard safety gear, then you ought to walk through the door of a Suzuki dealer to check out the XL7.
At the beginning of the year, I drove the company's snappy little four-door hatchback, the Aerio AWD. While I thought it could use more than 155 horsepower, I was otherwise impressed with the car's quality, ride, handling, interior space, standard safety gear -- all-wheel drive, antilock brake system, front side air bags -- as well as its price of about $17,000.
That was a small step forward. The XL7 is a big step, because it is big -- built atop the same General Motors Theta platform that anchors the Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent. That means it's about 10 inches longer than the last XL7, a couple of inches wider, and with a wheelbase upped by about 2 inches, helping to make for a smoother, more stable ride in straight-ahead driving.
Plus, it's a whole lot better looking (Acura-ish, I'd say) than the upright, side-ribbed, ugly box that was the last XL7.
The 3.6-liter engine produces 252 horsepower, which should be plenty, but felt more modest in this 2-ton-plus vehicle. The torque, at 243 lb.-ft., should be enough for medium-to-small boats or weekend-gear/supplies trailers. Power is transmitted through a smooth five-speed automatic transmission.
The XL7 front-wheel drive accounts for a base price down around $23,000. The test model's all-wheel drive would be fine for most winter travels in New England and probably for modest off-road slogging and sloshing, but without a low-range option, you won't crawl with the Wranglers, Toyota FJs, and other true off-road wanderers.
Its five-passenger configuration provides good space for exactly that -- five people. High headroom, good legroom, and wide shoulder space. The best feature of the third row of seats, however, is that they fold flat, allowing plenty of cargo space. But if you need to occasionally carry a couple of children in the rear, or make a couple of neighboring teens suffer on their way to a soccer game, the third row is a decent option.
On the road, the XL7 quickly makes it clear that it is not to be driven as a sports car. In hard cornering there's obvious body roll , and darting in and out of traffic in highway passing is not advised. But you shouldn't be driving an SUV, even a crossover, that way.
Engine and wind noise are minimal at speed, though the tires were a bit loud. Overall, handling was smooth, controlled, and confident.
Inside, the leather-appointed seats, leather steering wheel with audio controls, six-way power seats, heated front seats, wood grain trim, and tight fit and finish make it a crossover worth considering.
So, too, do the standard package of safety gear, self-leveling rear suspension, driver information center with trip computer, front and rear air conditioning, and an MP3-adaptable audio system with seven speakers.
You would not have to go far back in time to reach a point where only more luxurious brands offered all this as standard. And some of the more expensive models still don't.
Royal Ford can be reached at email@example.com.
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