The Little Engine That Can
2004 Suzuki Aerio LX

Let us consider the urban runner.

It has four wheels instead of two feet. It consumes gasoline instead of carbohydrates. It emits carbon monoxide -- which, unlike the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans, isn't good for green plants or other organic life.

But with proper pollution controls, the motorized urban runner can be good, practical and even fun. It is small, efficient, a blessing in city traffic and parking garages; and it is growing in safety, numbers and engineering sophistication.

You can be forgiven for not knowing that. The American preoccupation with sport-utility vehicles, pro and con, has consigned the urban runner to obscurity, with the exceptions of breakthrough models such as the Mini Cooper hatchback and the 2004 Toyota Prius sedan.

So, I've decided to explore this world of tiny wheels and small but robust engines -- of minuscule bodies with big hearts and inventive interiors capable of seating at least four adults in reasonable comfort.

In the past, I've reviewed the Prius, Dodge Neon SRT-4, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII and Lancer Ralliart, Subaru Impreza WRX, Mazda3, Suzuki Aerio SX wagon and several other worthy road munchkins.

I'm involved in a long-term study of Mercedes-Benz's Smart car, currently being redeveloped in Europe for global sales and scheduled for U.S.-market introduction in 2006.

But today marks a return to Suzuki mobiles, specifically the 2004 Aerio LX sedan, which offers more proof that Suzuki, better known for building fast motorcycles, is beginning to take cars seriously.

I will dispense with the visually obvious: The Aerio LX sedan is ugly -- a car with a bulldog face, square butt and supercilious rear wing.

Yet, what it lacks in face it has in performance and grace -- which are matters of dispute among automotive scribes.

The editors at, for example, describe the Aerio LX's handling as "sloppy." I strongly disagree. The people must have tested the car on a racetrack, where it does not belong, instead of on congested urban streets, where it excels.

I thoroughly enjoyed driving the Aerio LX through the traffic jams of Baltimore and the District of Columbia, through the mayhem of suburban Christmas shopping traffic. In those environments, the test car, equipped with a four-wheel independent suspension system, handled beautifully. It moved in the manner of a sharpened pencil, executing crisp, quick strokes through stacked traffic and deftly avoiding seriously inattentive motorists.

I was so impressed, I returned to the Aerio LX daily, leaving other substantially more expensive and prestigious vehicles in my driveway.

Zip and chutzpah are key characteristics of good urban runners, and the Aerio LX sedan has lots of both. Its 2.3-liter, 155-horsepower, four-cylinder eng ine out-muscles the comparable Honda Civic DX sedan (115 hp), the Toyota Corolla CE (130 hp) and the base 2004 Toyota Matrix car/wagon (130 hp). For that matter, the Aerio LX also packs more punch than my very own, much-beloved, base Mini Cooper, which comes with a 1.6-liter, 115-horsepower, four-cylinder engine -- and a considerably higher price tag than that stuck on the tested Suzuki.

Although the Aerio LX gets nothing for turning heads, its ugliness imbues it with a sort of street-rough swagger -- something akin to baggy jeans, waist chains, head rags and multiple tattoos. People leave the car alone, stay out of its way. In urban combat, that is a good thing, especially in the shopping mall, parking-lot warfare of transporting gifts bought, given and returned during the Season of Peace.

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: Awful exterior styling. An interior of pedestrian design and materials. But: Surprisingly good interior comfort. Very useful, convenient instr ment panel layout.

Ride, acceleration and handling: I did most of my Aerio LX driving in urban zones where the traffic was tight, the drivers were mean, the parking spaces were small, and the streets were physically brutal. Under those conditions, ride, acceleration and handling were nothing short of excellent. Suzuki is to be commended.

Engine/transmissions: The Aerio LX sedan is equipped with a standard 2.3-liter, 16-valve, in-line four-cylinder engine that develops 155 horsepower at 5,400 revolutions per minute and 152 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. The car gets a standard five-speed manual transmission. An electronically controlled, four-speed automatic is optional.

Model range: The front-wheel-drive Aerio LX sedan replaces the GS model for 2004. Other models include the base Aerio S and premium Aerio LX AWD.

Capacities: All Aerio sedans have seating for five people. Cargo capacity is 14.6 cubic feet -- quite generous for a compact car. Fuel capacity is 13.2 gallons. Regular unleaded gasoline is recommended.

Mileage: I averaged 28 miles per gallon in mostly city driving.

Safety: Front- and rear-side-door impact beams. No side-impact bags at this writing. Standard four-wheel anti-lock brakes and rear child-safety-seat tether anchors.

Price: Base price is $15,499. Estimated dealer invoice price is $14,200. Price as tested is $15,999, including a $500 transportation charge.

Purse-strings note: Excellent small-car value. Compare with 2004 Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Spectra, Mazda3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Toyota Corolla and the soon-to-be-introduced Chevrolet Aveo.