Only a teen-ager could name all the sport-utility vehicles that are lurking, morel-like, in the vehicular forest, and I’m pretty far beyond that point, at least chronologically . . . but there’s a bunch of ’em.
Inevitably, fragmentation and segmentation are taking place as each maker tries to put the hook in a specific audience with a claim of uniqueness.
There are no statutory classifications – the arbiter of sticker nomenclature, the Environmental Protection Agency, tends to call them all “special purpose vehicles” – but taxonomically, they can fairly well be lumped into size categories.
For simplicity’s sake, I denominate them small, medium, large and dreadnought.
The small ones – like Toyota’s RAV4, Ford’s Escape, Jeep’s Liberty – are sometimes referred to as “cute utes,” although the manufacturers avoid that term as demeaning.
This week’s guest, the Suzuki XL-7, straddles the ground between small and medium. The name derives from its alleged ability to transport seven humans, a claim we can immediately dismiss as hyperbolic. Seven sets of seat belts are no substitute for legroom. The Acura MDX is half a foot longer than the XL-7, and its claim of accommodating seven should be taken with an almost equal lump of salt.
The XL-7’s real claim to fame is that it’s cheap, compared to only slightly larger, true midsized vehicles like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and, for its length, offers a surprising amount of interior volume.
The XL-7’s 127 cubic feet of space easily eclipses that of vehicles which one might think comparable – the Hyundai Santa Fe with 100 c.f., the Escape, ditto, or even the Toyota Highlander (105 c.f.).
Only the base series of XL-7 comes with what to me makes the most sense – seating for five, plus 37 c.f. aft for cargo. As you move up the fanciness food chain, to Plus, Touring and Limited Edition, you are saddled with that fictive third row, which leaves behind it a pitiful 6.6 c.f. It, as well as the second row, can at least be folded down for 43 c.f. and 75 c.f., respectively.
Even the base series (starts at $19,096, 2WD, 5-speed manual transmission) is well-equipped. It has the same V-6 engine as the rest of the family, AM-FM-CD stereo, air conditioning, power windows, door locks and mirrors, micron air filtration, tilt wheel, cruise control, remote keyless entry, privacy glass and rear wiper and washer. Things you might want to add include an automatic transmission ($932) and four-wheel drive ($1,156).
You might be able to add those two biggies and stay at $20K, for, as www.edmunds.com reports, XL-7s are going for $1,500 to $2,000 below sticker.
The tester they sent me was maxxed out – a Limited Edition with 4WD and 4-speed automatic.
The Limited adds the following to the base series equipment load: rear air conditioning, aluminum wheels, third-row seating, antilock brakes, power moonroof, cassette player, fog lamps, leather upholstery and running boards. The Limited also has a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knobs, plus some particularly tacky-looking fake wood.
The XL-7 is advertised as budget-conscious luxury, but the interior, even at the Limited level, seems more meretricious than refined. But even as described, the asking price on a Limited is only $25,604, sans freight. And as noted above, you might be able to dicker 2 Gs off that number.
The XL-7 is Suzuki’s largest vehicle, essentially a stretched version of the Grand Vitara, itself a Vitara on steroids. The XL-7 has a 12.6-inch increase in wheelbase and 19 inches on overall length versus the G.V. In addition to the obviously greater carrying capacity, this endows it with better ride and stability, too.
It still looks quite tidy, owing perhaps to its smooth, well-integrated styling. Fit and finish were of a high order, and the paint was rich-looking.
Standing 5 feet, 8 inches, the XL-7 is easy to mount – in my view the Limited’s running boards are more bother than boon.
I did not want for headroom or legroom behind the wheel, which, unusually for a Japanese vehicle, tilted through a useful arc. The seats were handsome, hard enough for long sessions, but lacked adequate side bolstering. Ride quality was directly proportional to the quality of the road surface – fine on smooth highways, a bit harsh on rough stuff, but without undue pitching or leaning.
When the suspension was getting exercised, there were numerous buzzes and grunts and groans from the nether regions, but cruising on the freeway, the XL-7 was fairly quiet. Unlike many of its competitors, the XL-7 uses truck-style body-on-frame construction. While purportedly more durable than the unibody approach, this results in a rougher ride and a generally looser feeling. The aluminum V-6 engine is a bored-out version of the 2.5-liter used in the Grand Vitara, displacing 2.7 liters here, and enjoying a power bump this year to 183 hp (@6,000 rpm) and a slight boost in torque to 180 foot-pounds at 4,000.
The XL-7 turned out to be a bit thirsty, and I was surprised at how lackadaisical it felt, until I checked the spec sheet. This not-so-little guy weighs in at 3,748 pounds as tested.
The automatic transmission was not a paradigm, but did its job well enough. Overdrive lockout is effected with a switch on the shifter, and a bright indicator light serves as a reminder.
EPA estimates for this configuration are 17 mpg city, 20 highway. Somehow I managed 16.8, but that did include some light-duty off-roading. The XL-7 is one of the most capable mini-utes when the roads ends, because unlike most of them, which have full-time, light-duty AWD, it has part-time, mechanically locking 4WD plus a low range for very serious work.
Four-wheel-drive high is supposed to be shift-on-the-fly, but every time I tried it, the transfer case graunched rather irritably.
Language in the owner’s manual suggests stopping to engage it if it’s balky, as you must with the low range. I think for most folks a full-time system would prove more practical.
The XL-7 has only front air bags, with none available for the sides.
The government has not crash-tested the XL-7 yet, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has.
In the IIHS 40-mph offset frontal barrier crash, the XL-7 earned top marks (a “good” rating) in almost every category. The dummy driver’s left foot showed the possibility of injury, and his knees and shins hit the bolster under the dash. IIHS did not do side-impact tests. In 5-mph barrier tests, the XL-7’s bumpers were in the middle of the damage range, with a still-shocking average $1,488 in damage in the four impacts.
The brakes, ventilated discs front, drums rear on all series, were okay, if not impressive. The antilock wasn’t overly fussy and was, as usual, welcome.
The Clarion stereo had good sound q uality, with about-average tuner sensitivity, although in areas of marginal FM sensitivity, it distorted unpleasantly.
The power moonroof is rather small and, as on others, the overhead controls for the tilt and slide functions are separated, hard to find, shaped the same and don’t talk to each other – i.e., pushing the tilt button does nothing when slide has been activated. To close from the slid-open position, you must hold down an interlock button, an inconvenient arrangement.
The XL-7 is assembled in Japan.
The tester came with heated front seats ($300) and floor mats ($95) and thus bore a final price of $26,914 with freight. Payments at that price would come to $546, assuming 20 percent down, 10 percent interest and 48 installments.
“The Gannett News Service”