Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
Being first in a given market segment definitely has its advantages. Look at the Rubik's Cube versus Pyramix, Brittany Spears versus Christina Aguilera, and, of course, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" versus "Babylon Five." Even when the latecomers are superior to the original, they rarely meet with the same brand recognition or long-term success as the original simply because the original came first.
Often in automotive circles the race goes to the swiftest, as opposed to the best, product. Take Chrysler's minivans; first on the scene and still the bestsellers in their class, despite Honda's Odyssey, which offers improved ergonomics, more useful features, and better value. Ford's Explorer, while certainly not the first SUV, was the first SUV to successfully appeal to the non-SUV buyer back in 1990. Result? Four million Explorers sold in 10 years, and it's still the best-selling SUV, despite recent media bashing and placing fifth in our Midsize SUV Comparison Test behind the superior Pathfinder, Durango, 4Runner, and Grand Cherokee. The lesson is clear: be the first in a market segment and you'll likely be the most successful.
But what if you can't be the first? What if the segment is already stuffed full of models, all of them ranging from adequate to downright award-winning? If you can't be first, the next best thing is to be the first to offer features that none of the other players can match. And we're not talking dual cupholders or adjustable coat hangers. These features have to be something...big.
That's exactly what the 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7 is: BIG! Even its name comes from Xtra Large (the "7" refers to the seventh Suzuki SUV design introduced to the North American market) with an overall length that beats the Grand Vitara by 19.1 inches. Here's a model priced in CR-V, RAV4, and Xterra territory, that offers a total footprint (length times width) greater than a Ford Escape, Isuzu Rodeo, Mitsubishi Montero Sport or Toyota 4Runner. In fact, the XL-7 is just shy of a Grand Cherokee in terms of exterior dimensions. But don't let the name or the size confuse you. The last thing Suzuki wants is for people to think of the XL-7 as a "mini-Excursion." In fact, that Ford behemoth will be a supporting character in the upcoming XL-7 ad campaign, which is targeted toward the married/female customer that Suzuki expects to make up 70 percent of XL-7 sales. The campaign's message? You shouldn't have to drive a 7,000-pound truck just to enjoy the comforts of a versatile interior or the convenience of third-row seating.
Yup, that's right, the XL-7 is the first midsize SUV to offer third-row seating (with a total passenger capacity of seven) and a starting price of under $20,000 and a loaded MSRP of under $25,000. And unlike too many vehicles that claim to provide a third row of passenger space, the XL-7's rear seat, while not expansive or even roomy, is wholly functional for adults.
Several factors contribute to the XL-7's impressive people-hauling ability. First, it's got a 110.2-inch wheelbase. Just for reference, that's 12 inches longer than a RAV4, 9 inches longer than a CR-V, 7 inches longer than an Escape, and 6 inches longer than an Xterra. It's even 5 inches longer than a Toyota 4Runner's wheelbase. Taking up space between those axles are four large doors but, in a long overdue nod to functionality, the rear doors are considerably wider than the front doors. This design, combined with the second-row seats' ability to slide fore and aft up to 3.5 inches, means relatively easy access to the third-row seats.
Finally, the XL-7 sports both a low floor and a tall ceiling. Headroom is plentiful in every row, even for passengers with long torsos, due to the stepped roof design that rises above both the second- and third-row seats (similar to that of a Dodge Durango) and an overall height of 68 inches (67.5 on two-wheel-drive models). Foot room is also abundant, with space under the front- and second-row seats to slide all but the largest of shoes and a low floor that keeps third-row riders from suffering in the dreaded "eating their knees" position. Owners can also fold flat the second and third rows to get 73 cubic feet of storage capacity. One foible Suzuki still needs to address: second- and third-row seats are not removable.
If the XL-7 has an Achilles' heel in terms of passenger space, it comes from the vehicle's overall width. At 70.1 inches, it's just as wide as a Ford Escape or Nissan Xterra, which makes shoulder room tight for anyone larger than David Spade who is unlucky enough to get stuck in the center position of the second row. Keep passenger toting to six or less, however, and the XL-7 should do nicely, especially if two or more of those passengers are children.
Speaking of children, Suzuki knows that to win widespread appeal from the family market, safety must be addressed. The XL-7 offers a full array of today's latest safety items, including second-generation front airbags, integrated front and rear crumple zones, daytime running lamps, keyless entry, rear-door child safety locks, child seat-tether anchors, and a standard first aid kit. Company officials boasted of a steel-reinforced passenger compartment and side-impact beams located in every door, but for the market Suzuki is trying to capture and upscale image they've attached to the XL-7, side-impact airbags, at least as an option, need to find their way into this SUV.
Spaciousness and safety are key elements for today's SUVs, but they are only two of many factors that potential customers will consider when buying their next (sub)urban utility vehicle. Features and versatility are also important to the discerning buyer. Suzuki knows this and equipped the XL-7 with a long list of standard and optional features to accent the SUV's roomy interior. We've already talked about the third-row seating and sliding second-row seats, but there are also power door locks, power mirrors, and power windows on every XL-7. A 12-volt accessory socket, located in the rear cargo area, along with cruise control, air conditioning (with micron air filter), adjustable armrests for both front seats, split-folding second- and third-row seats, tinted privacy glass, and a rear window defroster are also standard items.
Step up to the XL-7 Plus and you get rear air-conditioning vents and a separate dial for fan speed control. You also get an AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD player and 16-inch aluminum wheels. The Touring model adds four-wheel ABS, a rear spoiler, a power tilt/slide sunroof, a CD/cassette player combination, and an automatic transmission. Top line Limited models get all of the above, plus leather seating. Prices range from $19,799 for a base two-wheel-drive model to $23,499 for an XL-7 Touring. Pricing on the Limited has yet to be announced, but expect it to stay under $25,000.
Regardless of which XL-7 you purchase, the same 2.7-liter V6 will be found under the hood. This is a punched out version of the Grand Vitara's 2.5-liter V6, making 170 peak horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque. The all-aluminum engine uses some of the company's motorcycle technology, including four valves per cylinder and a two-stage timing chain that never needs servicing, to make the most of those 2.7 liters. Rated at a 3,000-pound towing capacity, it seems to have worked. As always, we'd still like to see more horsepower. Load up an XL-7 with six people and a trailer carrying ATVs, and those 170 horses are going to be wheezing.
When driving the XL-7 we noticed a wide powerband that never felt peaky and only showed signs of hesitation at low rpms. With the five-speed manual transmission placed in overdrive while traveling at 55 mph, acceleration up a slight incline proved less than exhilarating. As one of the engineers told us, "this engine likes to rev" and, once we downshifted to fourth and brought the V6 past the 3,000-rpm mark, it pulled cleanly, proving his case.
When equipped with the automatic, drivers can choose between "normal" and "power" mode via a switch next to the shift lever. During our short stint in an automatic XL-7 we found the transmission to be capable at picking the right gear, though leaving it in "power" mode simply made it shift later than we'd have liked (though this is probably a useful function when traveling off-road).
What? Did someone say off-road? This is a modern-day SUV, so why is anyone thinking about its off-road ability? Well, Suzuki did, and despite the XL-7's target audience, the vehicle comes equipped with a low-range transfer case and 7.5 inches of ground clearance (7 inches on two-wheel-drive models). We honestly weren't expecting much when the off-road portion of the test drive arrived, but Suzuki provided not only a challenging course with deep ruts and steep hills, but a vehicle that was fully capable of handling these conditions with nary a suspension crash or wheel slippage. It occurred to this author as I was scampering up a hillside that filled the windshield with blue sky that no one who buys this vehicle will ever drive it under these conditions. Still, Suzuki gets major brownie points for creating a family-friendly SUV that happens to climb hill and cross dale as well as anything it might compete with.
It was only after piloting the XL-7 over a demanding off-road course that the Suzuki's on-road demeanor, specifically its serene ride quality, was truly appreciated. At highway speeds there is little wind, engine, or road noise permeating the cabin. The long wheelbase and effective sound-deadening material no doubt contribute to the XL-7's placid interior, but specific work by a former Lexus engineer was also undertaken to reduce unwanted vibration in the drivetrain and suspension. Occasionally, during the on-road driving route, the vehicle leaned more than we would have liked through sweeping turns. It also provided no feedback through the steering wheel and the brake pedal felt overly stiff (though actual braking performance seemed solid). Of course, this is not a performance vehicle and for most drivers these characteristics won't matter.
If there's one area Suzuki might want to address, it's the quality of interior materials used in the XL-7. Ironically, this complaint comes not from excessively cheap materials (in reality they are completely acceptable for this class of vehicle) but from using materials that don't fit the rest of the package. Basically, Suzuki has done such an effective job of elevating the XL-7 in terms of premium looks and features, that the otherwise adequate switchgear and seating material now seem somewhat out of place. Of course, the company is trying to meet a price point, so improvements here would undoubtedly result in a higher MSRP, something Suzuki wants to avoid.
The company hopes to sell 30,000 XL-7s in the first year. With an effective marketing campaign, numerous features, and handsome looks, we don't see Suzuki having any trouble meeting that goal. After all, when it comes to a midsize SUV for under $20,000 that gives buyers a functional third-row seat, Suzuki is first!
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