How big is big enough? Thats a tough question, especially in the good old USA where the adage bigger is better describes the norm. However, in the SUV marketplace, consumerswho certainly noticed that fuel prices rose to dizzying heights last summerare realizing that a lot of the behemoth, soccer-mom-driven SUVs seen on the roads these days have large appetites for fuel and could be easier to park and handle. With this in mind, Suzuki Motor Corporation introduced its vision for a new generation SUV at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last January in the form of the XL6 concept vehicle. The idea was simple: Create a vehicle with plenty of power, impressive feature content, and versatile three-row seating; make that vehicle sensibly sized and more affordable than a mammoth 3-ton SUV.
Thus was born the 2001 Grand Vitara XL-7. Building from the success of the Grand Vitara, Suzuki engineers designed the XL-7 with a wheelbase 12.6 inches longer than the base model, and 19.1 inches more in overall length, to make it the largest SUV Suzuki has ever produced.
The added length allows for third-row split seating on the base model XL-7, creating more space for passengers (up to seven) and cargo. Buyers for most other luxury SUVs have to pay extra for an optional seating upgrade like this. The drawback is a very tight and claustrophobic feel when the vehicle is fully loaded, especially for the passengers in the rear seats.
Under the hood, power comes from an all-aluminum 2.7L DOHC V-6 engine that produces 170 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque. To help make the most of the engines output, differential gearing was lowered. This change results in improved acceleration, Suzuki claims, while still maintaining acceptable fuel economy. The four-wheel-drive XL-7 is said to achieve a 17/20 mpg city/highway EPA rating with either a manual or automatic transmission.
Getting the little V-6s power to the driving surface is a shift-on-the-fly transfer case that provides two-gear ratios in four-wheel drive: four-wheel high for smooth surfaces and four-wheel low for more punishing terrain. This is a feature that a lot of SUV manufacturers are doing away with. But we consider a two-speed transfer case essential, and were pleased that Suzuki continues to include this important feature.
Suzuki engineers opted for modified MacPherson struts and an antiroll bar on the front of the XL-7. In the rear, a coil-sprung solid axle is positioned by a five-link system that allows for increased articulation in off-road conditions. This combination has resulted in a ride that provides highway comfort and smooth handling with the benefits of competent off-pavement performance. The rack-and-pinion steering helps add to handling quickness.
A major plus for the XL-7 is its sleek appearance. With the gaudy, plastic body molding of the Vitara long forgotten, the XL-7 exhibits sophisticated styling that is both eye-catching and functional.
Although the XL-7 seems to have accomplished most of what it was intended to do, it has a tendency to feel a bit like the family wagon. Its a functional, practical, and very affordable SUV. It may not feel quite like the capable off-roader enthusiasts crave, but its available at about $21,000. Thats a lot of money. But Suzuki would argue that the Grand Vitara XL-7 presents good value for that money.
Check It Out If:
You want a compact SUV that seats seven, gets decent mileage, and is affordable.
Avoid It If:
Youre looking for an SUV that is tough enough to handle rigorous and intense off-roading.