Suzuki's all-new Equator pickup goes on sale in November, the first truck from this Japanese brand that's mostly known for its motorcycles, marine products and sport utility vehicles.
But the company also has a great line of fuel-efficient small cars, and is the 12th-largest automaker globally.
The company showed off the new truck during a recent national media ride-and-drive event in downtown San Antonio and on the Knibbe Ranch in nearby Spring Branch.
Three concept versions of the Equator already had been unveiled at the Chicago auto show in February.
Designed on the same architecture as Nissan's midsize Frontier pickup, the Equator will be assembled for Suzuki on the same line with the Frontier at Nissan's plant near Nashville, Tenn.
The Equator is aimed at Suzuki's motorcycle, water-sports and all-terrain-vehicle customers who need a truck to haul their toys, said Gene Brown, the company's marketing vice president.
The company has 2 million motorcycle, marine and ATV owners in the United States, and surveys have shown that they are 50 percent more likely than other consumers to buy pickups, Brown said.
Since the February auto-show unveiling, however, the pickup market has dropped substantially because of spiking gasoline prices, and this has put the prospects for success of the Equator in doubt.
Still, smaller pickups such as this probably will make more sense to consumers than the full-size models such as the Toyota Tundra, Suzuki said.
Compact trucks are more practical in today's market than those "overladen beasts of the past," Brown said.
But he wasn't ready to make any specific sales predictions for the Equator, saying only that Suzuki's expectations range from "a few to a few thousand."
As for Suzuki introducing a pickup, Brown said, "This is the right truck for Suzuki."
The Equator's styling, interiors and other elements have been developed by Suzuki to satisfy the needs of the company's customers, he said. Those elements are unique to the Equator, and help differentiate it from the Frontier.
"We think we got the better-looking truck," Brown said.
Still, it's essentially a Frontier underneath, which isn't a bad thing by any means. The Frontier is widely considered to be one of the best compact pickups available.
Two things that differentiate the Equator from the Frontier, besides the unique exterior styling cues, are the truck's standard side air bags (optional on Frontier) and Suzuki's seven-year/100,000-mile extended powertrain warranty, which is not offered by Nissan.
But Brown was quick to say that "We're not going to market (the Equator) against Nissan. He said the competitors would be the Toyota Tacoma, Dodge Dakota, Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon, and Ford Ranger/Mazda B-series.
The 2009 Equator will be offered in extended- and crew-cab versions, with either a short or long bed in either cab configuration (to accommodate those who want to carry their motorcycles or water toys in the bed).
Engine choices will include either a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder with 152 horsepower and 171 foot-pounds of torque, or a 4.0-liter V-6 with 261 horsepower and 281 foot-pounds of torque.
The V-6 has an aluminum block, but for durability, it includes cast-iron cylinder liners, a forged-steel crankshaft, and Teflon-coated pistons. It also has variable valve timing and a "silent two-stage timing chain," Suzuki says.
A five-speed automatic transmission is available with the four-cylinder engine and standard with the V-6. A five-speed manual is standard with the four-cylinder.
For off-road use, there is an optional shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive system with a two-speed transfer case, along with an off-road traction system that includes an electronic locking rear differential, hill-descent control and hill-start assist.
The truck has a fully boxed frame with a 125.9-inch wheelbase for both the Extended Cab and Crew Cab models. Overall length is 205.5 inches for both models.
It has a steel double-wishbone front suspension and solid rear axle with leaf springs. Bilstein shock absorbers are standard.
Maximum towing capacity is 6,500 pounds.
Driving on the highway, the Equator was quite comfortable for a pickup, with a quiet, smooth ride.
On a rugged off-road trail at the Knibbe Ranch, which included two dramatic water crossings and some steep hills, the Equator's four-wheel drive showed its great trail capabilities.
Among other Equator features are speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, and a variety of available wheel and tire packages.
A tire-pressure monitoring system will be standard, but electronic stability control optional.
Other options will include heated power front seats, and a Rockford Fosgate premium audio system with in-dash CD changer and MP3 connectivity. Suzuki will not offer a leather interior package, which is available on the Frontier.
No EPA estimates have been released yet, but the Frontier models with the same four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission are rated at 17 mpg city/22 highway with two-wheel drive, and with the manual gearbox, 19/23. With the V-6, ratings are 15/20 for the two-wheel-drive models and 14/19 with four-wheel drive.
Production begins later this month, and the trucks should begin arriving at Suzuki's 480 U.S. dealers in late November, Brown said.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236; chambers@ star-telegram.com.