Look at the compact car market and you'll see a number of tempting choices vying for the consumers' dollar. They are the stalwarts Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, as well as the Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Mazda Protegé and Hyundai Elantra. All good picks. Up until now, Suzuki has been virtually invisible in this arena with its Esteem and Swift models, but it's hoping to change all of that with the new Aerio.
The Aerio is available as either a four-door sedan or as an "SX" ("sport crossover "). The SX is aimed squarely at the Mazda Protegé5, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix. These vehicles are essentially tall, sporty four-door hatchbacks geared toward active guys and gals who need something roomy to transport all their gear but want something that handles better and is more economical than an SUV.
Taking a lesson from the Hyundai school of marketing, Suzuki doesn't bother with stripped versions of its small car, providing a generous level of standard features for each version. Even the S sedan comes nicely equipped with air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, fog lamps, a six-speaker stereo with CD deck, a tilt-adjustable wheel and a digital display for the speedometer and tachometer. Edmunds staffers were split on the digital dash; one editor compared it to cars of the 1980s, when digital displays ran rampant. Another didn't mind it and cited two current sports cars, the Porsche Boxster and the Honda S2000, as modern examples of cars with digital gauges.
Moving up to the GS sedan or SX sport wagon further fattens up the standard equipment list with the addition of alloy wheels, keyless entry, power door locks, cruise control, a driver seat height adjuster, a rear seat center armrest, color-keyed mirrors and door handles, a chrome exhaust tip and a rear spoiler.
Safety is attended to with a structure designed to absorb and control crash energy via four crossmembers and high-tensile roof pillars. There is also a LATCH system for the child seats. We did notice, however, that side airbags are currently not offered on the Aerio.
Both models ride a wheelbase of 97.6 inches but overall length differs between the two, with the sedan at 171.3 inches and the hatchback, oddly enough, shorter at 166.5 inches. With an overall height 3 to 4 inches greater than other sedans in its class (the Aerio measures in at 60.8 inches tall; a Civic stands 56.7 inches), the Aerio sedan boasts a surprising amount of passenger and cargo room. The sedan has an impressive 14.6-cubic-foot trunk. Another benefit of the taller stature is ease of entry and exit, as the seats have a higher "hip point" than is typical, meaning one needn't stoop down to get into an Aerio.
The downside of the Aerio's space efficiency is a chunky profile that, because of the high beltline and greenhouse, makes the 15-inch alloy wheels (standard on the GS and SX) look smaller than they are. And it's not like those are little wheels; not too long ago, cars this size came with 13-inch wheels and full-sizers, such as a Ford Crown Victoria, had 15s. Offering a two-tone paint scheme or blacking out the lower periphery of the car would visually lean it out. Offsetting that design quirk and giving the Aerio some attitude are blistered fenders, an aggressive front fascia and simulated ground-effects. Suzuki also has a catalogue full of accessories, such as chrome side moldings, multi-configurable roof racks, door sill plates and even aluminum or simulated carbon fiber dash accents that allow the buyer to personalize the car.
Unlike most other manufacturers that have a few different engines for their compacts (typically saving the powerful powerplants for the top trim levels), Suzuki offers just one engine for its Aerio: a 2.0-liter DOHC inline four that makes 141 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. Transmission choices consist of either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Fuel economy estimates are set at 26 city/33 highway for the manual and 26 city/31 highway for the automatic. Braking duties are handled by front discs and rear drums, and ABS is optional at $500.
During the car's press introduction, we were impressed by the Aerio's peppy throttle response. And it's a smooth runner for the most part, though at high rpm, the engine can get raucous. This is usually not an issue, as there's plenty of power available without having to spin the tach needle near redline.
Suzuki didn't drop the ball on the transmissions, either. A couple of pet peeves of ours are automatics that upshift too soon (making a car sluggish) and/or are slow to downshift, usually requiring the gas pedal to be mashed to the carpet to grab a lower gear. The Aerio's self-shifter exhibited neither of these nasty traits. A light and precise action characterized the five-speed manual's shifter and, in concert with a likewise effortless and progressive clutch, made running through the gears enjoyable.
Even without the ABS, it was easy to get the most out of the Aerio's binders thanks to a progressive and easily modulated pedal. As always, however, we still recommend the optional antilock system, which will more than pay for itself the first time one needs to slow down quickly and maintain steering ability in a panic situation.
Using McPherson struts all around, the Aerio's fully independent suspension provides capable handling, though there was more body roll (magnified by the vehicle's taller architecture) than we would like. Steering effort was light, which is not a bad thing unless you're a driving enthusiast, in which case you'll likely prefer a meatier feel to the wheel.
On the road, the softer suspension settings were an asset, soaking up the bumps without jostling the passengers impressive for a car with a wheelbase less than 100 inches. Wind and road noise at freeway speeds were about average for this segment, with the Aerio being quieter than a Dodge Neon and louder than a Toyota Corolla.
The well-equipped, roomy and relatively powerful Aerio sedan offers consumers a worthy alternative to pricier and weaker competition. But it does have a rival to worry about in the form of Hyundai's similarly outfitted and muscular Elantra, which actually lists for less than the Suzuki. The SX hatchback, on the other hand, lists for around $1,500 less than its comparably equipped but less potent competitors. And the availability of all-wheel drive for both body styles (set to debut in September with the 2003 model) will give those who live in the country's snowbelt maximum traction for minimum coin.
After years of going unnoticed in the minor leagues, Suzuki has finally made it to the show and is ready to play with the big boys.