If you have a big family, you probably need a vehicle that can seat up to seven people. But to get that, you don't have to buy an expensive, gas-guzzling behemoth SUV, or even one of those mom-mobile minivans.

For your benefit, Suzuki offers the quite nice XL-7, one of the most-affordable SUVs on the market, and the least expensive model that also offers a third seat so you can take the whole family along.

Suzuki is the Japanese automaker that kicked off the mini-sport-utility craze with the introduction of its Samurai in 1987, followed by the Sidekick and then the Vitara and Grand Vitara compact SUVs. The company's vehicles are known for their superb quality and longevity.

The XL-7 was introduced in 2000 as a complement to the Vitara line, and is considerably roomier than the current Grand Vitara, yet maintains a small profile in comparison with such industry giants as the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet TrailBlazer and Toyota 4Runner.

And it is not one of the current crop of car-based "crossover" SUVs that really are not true sport utilities, but are just cars puffed up to look like SUVs. This is a true body-on-frame sport utility.

The XL-7 essentially is a stretch version of the previous-generation of the V-6 powered Grand Vitara. The stretching allowed Suzuki to add a third row of seating, and power of the V-6 engine was increased to handle the extra weight.

The result is a sport utility with a compact exterior profile, but room for two more people than the Grand Vitara offers. The Grand Vitara was completely redesigned for 2006, but the XL-7 did not change this year. A new version of the XL-7 is due out later this year, but and will also offer seven-passenger seating, but for now, the '06 model remains a great choice for those who need the extra space, but don't want to pay those bigger-SUV prices.

While it might be prudent to wait for the new model this fall, there's really nothing wrong with the current XL-7, and I'm quite fond of it - I have owned two of them. They are among the most stable SUVs I've driven, and their included amenities make them a great value.

And for off-road aficionados such as I, the current four-wheel drive versions of the XL-7 are quite capable well off the beaten track. I've taken mine through some of the most-rugged trails in North America. When the new model arrives, it will be offered with an all-wheel-drive system that is not truly trail-capable.

The XL-7's prices are a bargain when compared even with some SUVs that seat just five people, let alone those that seat seven. Prices for the 2006 models with the optional third seat begin at $23,699 (plus $595 freight) for the two-wheel-drive model, and $24,899 for the four-wheel-drive model.

Some of the current midsize SUVs offer three rows of seats, including the Explorer, TrailBlazer and 4Runner, but some don't - such as the Honda Pilot, Kia Sorento, Mitsubishi Endeavor and the Lexus RX 350.

Toyota, though, has rolled out a seven-passenger version of its compact RAV4 for 2006, but when it's equipped comparably to an XL-7, it can cost quite a bit more. Likewise, Mitsubishi is about to introduce a compact Outlander with a third row of seating. The RAV4's third seat is quite a tight fit for all but small children, though, while the XL-7's is more accommodating. The new XL-7 will be even roomier.

The XL-7's overall length is 187.4 inches, 5.9 inches longer than the current RAV4, 14.4 inches longer than the compact Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute, and nine inches longer than the Honda CR-V. In fact, it's four inches longer than the current 4Runner, and an inch longer than the 2006 Grand Cherokee. Try buying a fully-equipped model of one of those midsize SUVs for under $25,000 - it can't be done. Those models run to well into the mid-$30,000s.

The rear seat is best left to kids because of the access from the second row, but that's who most families will be buying the XL-7 to accommodate anyway. The middle seat is roomy enough for three adults, and the middle seat is on tracks so it can be moved forward or back up to 3.5 inches to allow for more rear leg room.

The rear doors are huge, thanks to the longer wheelbase, which allows for easy entry and exit from the rear seats. The two rear doors are as wide as the front doors on many coupes - and are 12 inches wider at their bases and eight inches wider at their tops than the side rear doors of many compact SUVs.

Fuel economy isn't as good as that of the CR-V or RAV4, but it's better than you'll find on many of the midsize and larger SUVs: 18 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway for two-wheel-drive models. A seven-passenger Ford Expedition, for example, gets about 14 mpg in the city, if you're light-footed on the gas.

Powering the XL-7 is an aluminum 2.7-liter V-6 engine rated at 185 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque. The engine is coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission.

Our test vehicle was the top-of-the-line Premium two-wheel-drive version, with a base price of $25,499 (plus freight). To add the very capable Suzuki four-wheel-drive system costs an additional $1,200, which is well worth the extra cost if you plan to take the vehicle into snow country or do any off-road exploring.

The shift-on-the-fly, part-time four-wheel-drive system has a two-speed transfer case with low-range gearing for serious off-road travel. That's also a big difference in the XL-7 over such vehicles as the RAV4, CR-V, RX 330, and Highlander, which offer all-wheel drive, but no low range.

The XL-7, like traditional truck-based SUVs, has a body installed on a sturdy steel ladder-box frame for extreme ruggedness and durability. Yet the XL-7 has the same carlike ride and handling of the crossovers.

There are plenty of available amenities for the XL-7, including leather interior and a rear air-conditioning unit (with vents for middle- and third-row passengers).

But with the Premium model, all of the amenities available on the XL-7 are standard, including leather seats, wood interior trim, and the rear air conditioning.

Among other included features on our test vehicle were automatic climate control, six-disc in-dash MP3-capable compact-disc changer with seven speakers, steering wheel stereo controls, micron air-filtering, power windows/door locks, keyless remote entry, cruise control, tilt steering wheel, halogen headlights with automatic on/off feature, rear wiper/washer, privacy glass, adjustable armrests, power tilt-and-slide sunroof, antilock brakes, alloy wheels, heated power outside mirrors, and a first-aid kit in the rear cargo area.

An adjustable center armrest has a CD storage bin. Other standard features include an electroluminescent instrument panel, chrome dash accents, and outside-temperature display with clock. One of the big pluses of the XL-7, is the swing-out rear cargo door that allows for easy loading. A full-size spare tire is mounted on the outside of the rear door, and swings out with the door.

Total price of our test unit, including freight, was $26,094.

Suzuki has one of the best warranties in the auto industry -- the vehicle's drivetrain is covered for seven years/100,000 miles. The basic bumper-to-bumper warranty is 3 years or 36,000 miles, and includes 24-hour roadside assistance.

The tank holds 16.9 gallons of gasoline, and unleaded regular is recommended.

The XL-7 can tow a trailer weighing up to 3,000 pounds.

2006 Suzuki XL-7

The package: Compact, seven-passenger, five-door, V-6 powered, rear- or four-wheel-drive, Japanese-built sport-utility vehicle.

Highlights: This is an extended-length version of the previous-generation Grand Vitara, available with a third row of seating. It is more affordable than the larger seven-passenger SUVs, and has the built-in ruggedness and reliability of all Suzuki vehicles.

Negatives: Third seat is best left to the kids; limited cargo area with third seat in place.

Engine: 2.7-liter V-6.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Power/torque: 185 HP/184 foot-pounds.

Length: 187.4 inches.

Curb weight: 3,638-3,704 pounds.

Towing capacity: 3,000 pounds.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/drum, power, antilock optional.

Fuel capacity/type: 16.9 gallons/regular unleaded.

EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city/22 highway (2WD).

Major competitors: Jeep Liberty, Kia Sorento, Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute, Nissan Xterra, Mitsubishi Outlander, Saturn Vue, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4.

Base price range: $21,999-$26,699 (plus $595 freight).

Price as tested: $26,094 (Premium, 2WD, w/3rd seat).

On The Road rating: ***** (five stars out of five).

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.