Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
Your heart is telling you to buy a car with leather seats, ABS, a sunroof and a six-cylinder engine. But your wallet is telling you that you have to stay under $20,000. What's a buyer to do?
Well, you can try the 2004 Suzuki Verona. You might find everything you need without breaking your budget. Or, you might decide to stick with a less feature-laden Accord or Camry. Although the Verona is new to the American market, it's already sold as the Daewoo Magnus in other parts of the world. Now the largest car in Suzuki's lineup, the Verona has many touches that may draw the attention of the shopper trying to strike a balance between quality and economy. Not to mention the fact that a six-cylinder engine is standard on all three trim levels. While this family sedan doesn't really break any new ground, either in styling or feature content, it does provide a less expensive alternative to the ubiquitous Accord and Camry or even the current-generation Altima.
In case you haven't noticed, Suzuki has decided to go head-to-head against top Japanese manufacturers Honda and Toyota in several of the most competitive segments. Spearheading this drive is the introduction of the midsize Verona. Next up is the compact Forenza which will compete against lower-line Civics and Corollas, while the better-equipped, more powerful Aerio takes on the more expensive economy sedans and wagons. Several more new vehicles will follow in the near future. Supporting these new offerings will be a revamped look to Suzuki dealerships across the country. And, of course, beaucoup advertising bucks to keep the new products in front of your face.
One of the Verona's main selling points is its standard 155-horsepower, inline six-cylinder engine. The all-aluminum, dual-overhead cam, 24-valve, 2.5-liter power plant also generates 177 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, giving it a nice kick off the line.
Suzuki spokesmen were quick to point out that the transverse mounting of the engine creates two key benefits. First, it allows for a wider track (61 inches for the front and 60 inches for the rear) which provides better handling. Also, with the engine moved forward, it opens up more cabin room for the passengers. Additionally, the engine uses a timing chain which requires no changing or maintenance for the life of the car and thus will cut service costs.
The front-wheel-drive Verona uses a standard computer-controlled four-speed automatic transmission; no manual gearbox is available. The computer learns the style of the driver and matches the shifts accordingly to maximize the engine's performance.
The Verona offers more leg- and shoulder room than its competition, providing 37.8 inches of rear legroom versus 36.8 in the Accord and 36.2 in the Optima. Front shoulder room is 57.3 in the Verona as opposed to 56.1 in the Accord and 56.9 in the Optima. In fact, the interior feels roomy, though not noticeably more so than other cars in this segment.
What is noticeable are the quality touches. The dark wood grain panels on the center stack and the doors provide a luxury feel that is unexpected in this price range. The chrome plate around the leather-wrapped shift knob is another nice touch. There is also an assortment of storage spaces, and cupholders are provided throughout the cabin. The sound system not only offers an in-dash six-disc CD changer but invites you to break your cassettes out of storage and give them a listen. Deeply recessed gauges have attractive white-facing and are luminescent at night. The plastics are generally pleasing to the touch and of high quality. The grab handles and storage doors are damped providing a solid feel. In general, build quality seems high, and some finishing touches instill the feeling that Suzuki has gone the extra mile.
The exterior styling of the Verona, while pleasant enough, lacks a strong point of view. Penned by Italdesign in Turin, Italy, it seems aimed at the broadest possible spectrum of buyers with styling cues that remind us of many different though attractive midsize cars. However, if Suzuki is making a big move, it would seem to follow that it would want to design a real attention-getter. On the other hand, the Verona's dignified lines will age gracefully and may, in the long run, outlast the trendier looks of some current favorites. Certain colors suit the design especially well, so if you are shopping for this car be sure to consider all the options.
The Verona is offered in three trim levels: the base S, the midlevel LX and the top-of-the-line EX. The S, which starts at $16,999, has 15-inch wheels, power windows and door locks, heated mirrors, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, keyless entry, an alarm system, a tilt steering wheel, a six-way adjustable driver seat, air conditioning, a six-speaker stereo with a CD/cassette player and floor mats. Antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution are an option on the S model.
Step up to the LX, with a base sticker price of $18,299, and get automatic climate control, 16-inch alloy wheels and ABS. The top-of-the-line Verona EX, starting at $19,999, will get you a power sunroof, heated leather seats, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an eight-way power-adjustable driver seat. Traction control is an option on the EX.
Clearly there are a lot of nice features and the price is easy on the budget. But what does it feel like on the open road? Surprisingly, the Verona is tight and solid and backs up its quality look with a quality feel.
At a dead stop, the inline six does indeed idle smoothly with little vibration. When driving in city traffic, there is strong low-speed acceleration and smooth power delivery. The automatic transmission's shifts are crisp and certain. The Verona offers adequate acceleration for most types of driving. However, more aggressive drivers who like to make sudden midrange maneuvers mashing the accelerator and veering into the passing lane might be disappointed in the passing power of this six-cylinder engine. The limits of a four-speed transmission further reduce the midrange acceleration, whereas a five-speed automatic would have given the engine that much more to work with. Remember too that, although it is a six, it's only 155 horsepower, which is about what most four-cylinder motors make in this segment.
A Suzuki representative told us that the suspension was intentionally softened to meet the tastes of the North American marketplace (in Europe, the company will sell a Verona with a stiffer suspension and a four-cylinder engine). Despite the comfy ride, the Verona's handling was still very acceptable. The steering wasn't overly quick, which will probably match most freeway driving conditions. The car leans in tight corners but isn't at all sloppy. The brake pedal on our test car clicked when pressed (perhaps the activation of the brake light), but the pedal travel was just right and the car tracked straight to a smooth stop.
Taking a look at the competition, we find that the Verona, in LX trim, is indeed less expensive than a comparable Accord, Altima, Camry, Mazda 6 or Passat. The 2004 Hyundai Sonata LX is only $300 more. However, the Suzuki's 7-year/100,000-mile drivetrain warranty is topped by Hyundai's 10-year/100,000-mile drivetrain warranty.
If low price is a big factor in a buyer's decision, the Verona is an attractive choice. But there are other positives as well, including a clean styling, a smooth six-cylinder engine and the feeling of quality in all the details. In this category Suzuki scores well with the Verona. But then again, only a test-drive will decide for sure.
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