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Suzuki crossover SUV is a new and improved family vehicle
The company that brought us the crude and much-maligned Samurai sport utility vehicle is fielding a new entry this year, the XL7, that's about as far removed from its predecessor as beef bourguignonne is from a hamburger.
The Suzuki XL7 is one of a growing breed of "crossover" SUVs that either share basics with a car or are constructed in a carlike manner, with a unitized body rather than a traditional truck's body-on-frame configuration.
Unlike that of the Samurai, the XL7's design is modern enough for General Motors to share it; it forms the basis for the Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent and is built in the same place, Canada, although the Suzuki is a considerably longer vehicle. (GM owns a small piece of Suzuki, and the two carmakers have shared products for years.)
The XL7 is a generally user-friendly family vehicle that's available with a (typically cramped) third row of seating, handles acceptably in conservative driving, has a peppy 252-hp. V-6 engine, gets about 19 mpg overall and can be had with all the baubles and bangles one could want in an SUV, including rear seat entertainment and a navigation system.
Suzuki says the XL7 goes from 0 to 60 mph in fewer than 8 seconds - acceleration that's more than acceptable for a family vehicle.
Just don't try to drive your XL7 like a sports car and you'll get along fine; the suspension is soft and allows a scary amount of body lean in hard cornering - enough to have nervous passengers begging for mercy. The steering felt numb to me at highway speeds - although I got used to it after a few days with the tester.
A few other complaints: The power window switches are on the center console, not the driver's armrest or interior door panel where most drivers expect to find them and where they're easier to locate by touch. The dashboard gauges glare quite a bit in daylight, making them difficult to read.
I wished the XL7 could turn tighter, for making U-turns or swinging into parking stalls.
And I don't know whose idea it was to locate the tiny fog lamp switch about a mile away from the rest of the light controls or the rear wiper switch almost as far from the other wiper controls, but no dessert for him (or her or them) tonight.
Most crossovers are front-drivers at heart, with all-wheel either standard or, as in the case of the XL7, available.
Although it stickered at almost $28,000, my test XL7 was a front-driver, but in an up-level Limited equipment level with leather interior and a DVD player.
All-wheel drive would have added $1,600. It's a popular option here in the Northeast - and maybe indispensable where you live. But if you're thinking of forgoing it, the combination of high ground clearance, front drive, standard traction control (and maybe some aftermarket winter tires) should make this vehicle an acceptable performer in most winter road conditions.
The front-drive tester had a tendency for the front tires to break traction in a jackrabbit start and a tendency to a little "torque steer" instability up front in hard acceleration. That manifests itself in a slight tugging on the steering wheel and, when accelerating out of a turn, a tendency for the steering wheel not to spin itself back to straight ahead.
Suzuki says that virtually all the torque normally goes to the front wheels, so I suspect the all-wheel-drive models will evidence the same shortcomings.
On sale since November, the new XL7 replaced another completely different vehicle called XL-7 (it lost its hyphen for '07) that had descended from the Sidekick, Vitara, Grand Vitara, Chevy Tracker family of little trucks. The sole surviving member of that family, the Grand Vitara, is still offered.
The '07 XL7 begins almost $1,000 more than its '06 predecessor, but the list of improvements is long, beginning with the General Motors-designed, Suzuki-assembled 3.6-liter engine. The '06 had a 2.7-liter six that delivered only 185 hp. (But fuel economy that was no better than the new model's 18 mpg city and 24 highway, as estimated by the EPA.)
The XL7 also picked up 2 inches of wheelbase in the redesign, 10 inches of overall length, 2 inches of width, 7 inches of rear seat legroom, and more shoulder room, hip room and ground clearance.
The redesign made the XL7 larger and more powerful than many competitors, including the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Nissan Murano, the Equinox, Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe. But not the Saturn Outlook or its corporate twin, the GMC Acadia, which have 3 inches and 23 hp. on the Suzuki.
And, in power at least, not the new Ford Edge, which has 265 hp. under its hood (and a six-speed rather than a five-speed automatic transmission.)
The best you can do in the other competitors is 215 hp. in a Highlander, 240 in a Murano, 244 in a Pilot, and 242 in a Santa Fe.
The 185-hp. Grand Vitara is a much smaller vehicle - more than a foot and half shorter than the XL7 and starting at under $20,000.
The XL7, in fact, is the largest SUV Suzuki has ever offered. It begins at $23,534 in front drive with an automatic transmission that offers manual shifting capability; air-conditioning; anti-lock brakes; cruise control; power windows, locks and mirrors; curtain air bags, but with two rows of seating for five, not three rows for seven. Add $1,350 for a version that's identical but has a third row of seating (and automatic load-leveling shock absorbers).
The XL7 comes in basic, Luxury and the most expensive Limited equipment levels. Base prices range up to $30,184 for a Limited with all-wheel drive and the third seating row. Suzuki says the new XL7 will tow 3,500 pounds.
There is no publicly available info yet on the new XL7's reliability. In general, Suzuki's record is mixed; its dealers and its vehicles tend as groups to score poorly in the various owner surveys conducted by market researchers J.D. Power and Associates.
At least Suzuki offers a strong warranty to help allay the fears of potential buyers: three years or 36,000 miles bumper to bumper with roadside assistance plus seven years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain.
There is some comparative information available about the XL7's safety, and it's pretty good news: The vehicle scored four out of a possible five stars in its protection of the driver in frontal and side-impact crashes, and five out of five in protection of the shotgun passenger and rear passengers, respectively, in the federal government's crash tests.
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