EXPERT REVIEW

The Sacramento Bee's view

Oh, no! Not another Suzuki XL-7!

That was my reaction upon hearing that a 2005 XL-7 sport-utility vehicle was out in the parking lot. Seems like I’ve been test-driving an XL-7 every three months or so. And they’re not that big or impressive. And they feel kind of cheap and …

What the … ?

The XL-7 EX 4WD model that I walked up to recently did not look like the Suzuki I remembered. Not only did it look bigger, it looked better. Way better.

The tester was painted what Suzuki calls White Pearl. Many times, automakers use “pearl” as a fancy name for white. Not so with the XL-7. This Suzuki’s coat had that high sheen you expect to see on, well, a pearl.

Taking the XL-7 out for a spin offered more surprises. Performance from the 2.7-liter, 185-horsepower V-6 was downright peppy. No one is going to mistake it for the 355-horsepower V-8 found on a BMW X5, but the nearly 3,800-pound, four-wheel-drive XL-7 effortlessly snaked through surface-street traffic, smoothly accelerated on the freeway and climbed hills with comparatively little noise. It hugged curves with appropriate snugness.

My time spent on a relatively mild off-road course was enjoyable. The tester dug into the dirt with enthusiasm and showed no tendency to get stuck on muddy trails. The XL-7 ladder-style frame is well-engineered – stable off the road and smooth-riding on the freeway. Driving it is not a chore.

Suzuki advertises a towing capacity of 3,000 pounds for the XL-7 – a pretty hefty number for a vehicle with a 2.7-liter V-6. Gas mileage is only 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the open road.

The tester, starting at $25,799, is the third-most-expensive model among eight XL-7 trim levels offered for the 2005 model year, but the only extra cost above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price was a $595 destination/handling charge.

An extremely impressive list of standard features included a seven-speaker sound system with a six-disc CD changer, tilt steering wheel with audio controls, push-button 4WD, leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, alloy wheels, power/heated exterior mirrors, a power tilt/slide sunroof, power windows and locks, 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels and a tire pressure-monitoring system.

That’s a list you normally expect to see on a $40,000 SUV.

And then there’s the transferable, standard powertrain warranty – 100,000 miles or seven years. A 24/7, 365-days-a-year roadside assistance program is also part of the deal.

Please note that the XL-7 can be had in a seven-seat option, with three rows of seating. However, my call is that seven folks would feel cramped in this 187-inch-long sport-ute.

Exterior styling is somewhat plain vanilla, which in this case means you might mistake the XL-7 for perhaps a half-dozen other midsize SUVs that look similar. The interior layout, however, is attractive, with a center stack of easy controls that are easy to use and handle.

Rear seats folded easily, creating 75 cubic feet of cargo space. Adding nearly 300 pounds of cargo at the very back of the tested XL-7 did not drastically alter its handing capabilities – off-road or on.

On the safety front, the XL-7 has received the highest rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s 40-mph frontal offset crash test.

The biggest downer for the XL-7 is arguably the SUV segment in which it competes; it has to go up against such hot-selling heavyweights as the Toyota Highlander, the Honda Pilot and the Ford Explorer. Given the brand loyalties for those particular models, it’s my guess that drivers of those vehicles are not even looking at the Suzuki XL-7 as a possible purchase.

But quite frankly, the XL-7 competes quite well in this niche. For those looking for a feature-loaded SUV with savings of a few thousand dollars, the XL-7 might be the way to go.

It might not impress the neighbors, but it’s not their money, and they likely don’t know what comes standard on the Suzuki product.

Take them for a ride and show them the sticker price. You might see something akin to jealousy in their eyes.

One other point for longtime Suzuki followers: Yes, Suzuki continues to pair the Grand Vitara name with its flagship XL-7 sport-ute, but it goes to great lengths to bury the name on the window sticker. Instead, the XL-7 label gets top billing.

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2005 Suzuki XL-7 at a glance Make/model: 2005 Suzuki XL-7 EX 4WD. Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-wheel-drive, four-door sport-utility vehicle.

Base price: $25,799 (as tested, $26,394).

Engine: 2.7-liter V-6 with 185 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 184 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm.

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city; 22 mpg highway.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic with special features.

Steering: Power rack and pinion.

Brakes: Ventilated discs on front; drum brakes on rear (with anti-lock).

Suspension: Independent, MacPherson strut-type on front; five-link with coil springs on rear.

Interior volume: 118.2 cubic feet.

Cargo volume: 75.1 cubic feet (with rear seats folded).

Ground clearance: 7.6 inches.

Fuel tank: 16.9 gallons.

Curb weight: 3,759 pounds.

Track: 59.1 inches front and rear.

Height: 68.5 inches.

Length: 187.4 inches.

Wheelbase: 110.2 inches.

Width: 70.1 inches.

Towing capacity: 3,000 pounds.

Tires: P235/60R16 radials.

Final assembly point: Iwata, Japan.

About the writer: The Bee’s Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or mglover@sacbee.com.

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