Years ago, during my last year in high school, I bought my first vehicle: a 1982 soft-top Suzuki Samurai 4X4. I loved that little car, though it was a piece of garbage. My friends called it the Weep, because it wasn't really a Jeep, and the repair bills made me cry.
Fortunately, Suzuki has vastly improved its automotive offerings. Recently, we spent a week with a 2001 Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7, and when it rained it didn't leak through the dash and soak our feet. So it wasn't necessary to carry a spare box of fuses to fix the electrical system, which kept shorting out. Nor did we require our friends to push us down a hill to get it started. Also, we no longer needed to steal the cushions from Mom's chaise lounge in order to make the seat halfway comfortable.
No, this is an entirely new generation of Suzuki. Introduced in 2001, the XL-7 is the largest sport-utility vehicle ever produced by the upstart Japanese manufacturer. Based on the Grand Vitara, which debuted in 1998, the XL-7 is 19.1 inches longer overall and has a 12.6-inch longer wheelbase for a total length of 183.7 inches. The extra length allows Suzuki to offer the XL-7 with a third-row split folding seat, which is more functional than you might guess. In addition, the extra length also makes the cabin more commodious for passengers in the front and second row seats. And the longer wheelbase (enlarged to 110.2 inches from the Grand Vitara's 97.6 inches) makes for a smoother ride over rough spots in the road because body pitching is better absorbed.
However, the extra length does nothing for the XL-7's interior materials. The dash is dominated by cheap-looking, hard plastics all colored an industrial gray to match the carpet, headliner and upholstery. The cheapness is emphasized by the gray vinyl sun visors, which are rimmed by remnants of ragged plastic that were left by the heat press that made them. Also, for a vehicle oriented toward families, the XL-7 is rather stingy with storage space. There is no center console and the door bins are too narrow for anything more than a map or two. So, although our test vehicle was equipped with an in-dash CD player, there was nowhere to stow our music.
Surprisingly for a small SUV, the XL-7's front and second-row seats are broad, well-bolstered and comfortable. A long highway journey did not yield the stiff back and numb legs we expected. And off-road, the seats held us snuggly enough to stop us from being thrown around over uneven terrain.
We were impressed with the XL-7's performance off-road. When the going got tough, we used the floor-mounted transfer case lever, switching from two-wheel drive to 4WD high on-the-fly. In 4WD, the XL-7 traversed the ruts and ridges of the rugged road and chewed through the loose gravel with sturdy confidence. When the road got really gnarly, we stopped and dropped it into low range, which is a rare feature for a small SUV (for example, the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape use permanent all-wheel drive with no low-range gear). In 4WD low the XL-7 felt like a little tank. It crawled over ditches and arrested its descent nicely on declines, eliminating the need for excessive braking. The Suzuki proved itself capable on terrain where minivans and sedans would definitely be lost and most small SUVs would struggle.
Off-road willingness aside, we'd like to see an even stiffer body structure for the XL-7. Instead of a satisfying and reassuring clunk when slamming a door, the XL-7 delivers more of a tinny "clank." Although Suzuki claims it beefed up the body structure for safety, durability and noise control, the XL-7 still seems unsubstantial. And on the rutted off-road track we drove, the cabin and underpinnings emitted numerous rattles.
Off-road rattling was exacerbated by the XL-7's taut suspension. Equipped with independent MacPherson struts with coil springs and a stabilizer bar in front and a rigid rear axle suspended by a five-link setup in the rear, the XL-7 provides surprisingly good handling on road. In fact, handling is excellent. The XL-7 actually performed better than the 2001 BMW 325xi Wagon during our instrumented suspension and handling tests no small feat, as BMWs are renowned for their superior suspensions. Off-road, the taut suspension results in a rough ride. This is especially noticeable on rutted surfaces where the XL-7 transmits every rattle straight to your kidneys, despite the comfy seats.
All XL-7s get a 2.7-liter double-overhead-cam 24-valve V6 engine that generates 170 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 178 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. With a 3,748-pound curb weight (average for a small SUV), the engine was quite spirited, providing enthusiastic acceleration in the city and on the highway. Our test vehicle was a four-wheel-drive version with a five-speed manual transmission. The manual tranny allowed us to squeeze maximum performance from the willing V6. In our instrumented testing, the XL-7 completed the 0-to-60 mph dash in just 9.3 seconds, which is fairly quick for an SUV in this category.
The XL-7 won't kill you at the pump, either. Suzuki reports EPA fuel mileage of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. With its 16.9-gallon fuel tank, the XL-7 should travel 338 miles on road trips before it needs refilling.
The XL-7 also provides plenty of luggage space. Maximum luggage capacity (with second- and third-row seats down) is 73 cubic feet that's 7 cu. ft. more than the similarly sized Nissan Xterra. With just the third-row seats down, there's 37 cu. ft. of cargo space. However, if you need to use the third row, capacity drops to a measly 6.6 cu. ft. Suzuki makes much of the fact that the XL-7 is the first small SUV to offer three-row seating. While not exactly palatial, this third row is fully functional for small children and even passable for full-size adults, at least for short trips.
If you don't need the third-row seat, just leave it stowed and make use of the cargo area as you wish.
The XL-7 provides excellent value to those seeking an alternative to the much-stigmatized and ubiquitous minivan and the gas-guzzling, oversized SUV. A two-wheel-drive manual transmission XL-7 in Standard trim (which includes air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, power door locks, remote keyless entry, tilt steering, cruise control and a first aid kit) costs $20,299 including destination charge. Our 4WD test vehicle was the Touring model. It has all the Standard trim-level goodies, plus in-dash CD player, antilock brakes, 16-inch aluminum wheels, power sunroof and fog lamps. An automatic transmission is a $1,000 option.
We like the looks of the XL-7, too. It's reminiscent of the sculpted, rugged Toyota 4Runner. The Suzuki's 16-inch alloys and 235/60R16 all-season radials fill its wheel wells, which are attractively accented by flared fenders. Whereas the short front and rear overhang makes the Grand Vitara look a little stubby, the XL-7's extra length makes it look more elegant and athletic. The square headlamps, chrome grille and body-color bumpers also add class and distinction.
Too bad the XL-7 wasn't available in my senior year my mother could have used her chaise and I would have spent my money on burgers instead of on fuses, clutches and dry socks.
Road Test Summary
The Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7 is the SUV the automaker should have built years ago. It's got attractive looks, strong off-road ability and solid value.
Introduced in 2001, the XL-7 is the largest sport-utility vehicle ever produced by Suzuki. It is 19.1 inches longer than the Grand Vitara on which it's based. The extra length allows Suzuki to offer the XL-7 with a surprisingly functional third-row split folding seat. The extra length also makes for a smoother ride over rough spots in the road because body pitching is better absorbed.
The XL-7's 2.7-liter double-overhead-cam 24-valve V6 engine generates 170 horsepower. With a five-speed manual tranny, we were able to squeeze maximum performance from the willing V6. In our instrumented testing, the XL-7 completed the 0-to-60 mph dash in 9.3 seconds.
Handling is also excellent. The XL-7 actually performed better than the 2001 BMW 325xi Wagon during our instrumented handling tests.
The XL-7 won't kill you at the pump, either. Suzuki reports EPA fuel mileage of 17 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.
We like the looks of the XL-7. It reminds us of the sculpted, rugged Toyota 4Runner. The XL-7's extra length makes it look elegant and athletic. The square headlamps, chrome grille and body-colored bumpers also add class and distinction.
We were impressed with the XL-7's performance off-road. It proved itself capable on terrain where minivans and sedans would definitely be lost and most small SUVs would struggle.
We aren't overly impressed with the XL-7's body structure, though. Its lack of substance was evident when we closed a door. Instead of a satisfying and reassuring clunk, the XL-7 delivers more of a tinny "clank." Also, the interior is dominated by hard plastics all colored in industrial gray. There is no center console and the door bins are too narrow for anything more than a map or two.
The XL-7 provides excellent value to those seeking an alternative to ubiquitous minivans and larger gas-guzzling SUVs. A two-wheel-drive manual transmission XL-7 in Standard trim (which includes air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, power door locks, remote keyless entry, tilt steering, cruise control and a first aid kit) costs $20,299 including destination charge. Our 4WD Touring model test vehicle had all the Standard trim-level goodies, plus an in-dash CD player, antilock brakes, 16-inch aluminum wheels, a power sunroof and fog lamps. An automatic transmission is a $1,000 option.
Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says: So Suzuki thinks it can just pull a little here and stretch a little there and turn the Grand Vitara into a seven-passenger SUV? Well, almost.
Even midsize sport-utes have trouble wedging another seat into the cabin, let alone a small ute like the Grand Vitara, so it came as no surprise to learn that the third-row accommodations were barely adequate. The possibility of actually fitting two adults back there is limited, but a couple of flexible kids probably wouldn't mind. Although the XL-7 doesn't exactly come through with monumental passenger proportions, the extra space carved out for the extra row of seats does make the little sport-ute a surprisingly capable cargo-hauler.
Like the Grand Vitara, the XL-7's ride quality is relatively composed in the corners, with well-controlled roll and predictable handling. Large potholes send shudders through the body, but most other road irregularities are filtered out with little commotion. The V6 engine has plenty of power to move an empty XL-7, but add four passengers and a weekend's worth of luggage, and the stretched Suzuki would probably lose a good deal of its zest.
The interior is obviously where some of the cost-cutting takes place, with lots of gray plastics and cheap-feeling switchgear. The layout is at least organized and legible, with little clutter and easy-to-read gauges. The seats are thinly cushioned and provide little in the way of support for your back and legs.
Seven passengers or not, the XL-7 does present an interesting alternative in the compact sport-ute market. If you like the idea of a big sport-ute, but hate the idea of parking it, the XL-7 might just be the ticket. It still feels like a mini ute from the driver seat, yet gives you the extra room you need in a pinch. If you carry full loads of rugrats on a consistent basis, the XL-7 might be too much of a lightweight, but if a car-load of kids is only a rare occasion, Suzuki's stretched sport-ute might just do the trick.
Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says: If you're looking for a small four-wheel-drive SUV with a V6, decent feature content and three-row seating for well under $30K, the XL-7 makes a lot of sense. Initially, it seems like a much more logical choice than considerably more expensive midsize models like the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander. On paper, at least, the Suzuki seems like it would fill all the same needs as more expensive SUVs, but for a lot less cash.
Once inside the XL-7, however, it becomes readily apparent why Suzuki can afford to sell its vehicle for less money. Cost-cutting is glaringly apparent in the cheapness of the cloth and plastic interior materials, the rattling cabin and the incessant vibration that travels up through the notchy gear shifter.
If trailbusting is your forte, though, you might be able to overlook the Suzuki's disappointing refinement levels in favor of its excellent off-road manners. The independent front suspension is stiff enough both on-road and off to preclude excessive wallow, while the front stabilizer bar suppresses body roll nicely. And though the standard 2.7-liter V6 feels a little underpowered on the highway, it proves more than sufficient for climbing dirt hills. On very rough paths, XL-7's shock absorbers offer consistent damping, keeping passengers from being tossed all over the cabin.
Refined and luxurious the XL-7 is not. But it will shuttle seven passengers wherever they need to go, even if their destination is a long way off the beaten path.
Senior Editor Chris Wardlaw says: Suzuki finally has an appealing SUV with the Grand Vitara XL-7. This is the SUV the company has needed for more than a decade in terms of space, power, ride, handling and off-road capability. But that doesn't mean Suzuki got it right ... yet.
See, the idea that an SUV this size should be equipped with a third-row seat is suspect, at best. I get the feeling that Suzuki was willing to live with compromised second-row passenger comfort and reduced maximum cargo capacity because some marketing genius figured that advertising seven-passenger seating would result in giant sales gains. Unless you're toting Oompa Loompas from Willy's house to the chocolate factory, seven people ain't gonna fit inside this truck, folks, so don't scratch the Ford Expedition off your list quite yet.
Had Suzuki opted instead to give second-row occupants more legroom and create a deeper cargo floor in back, the XL-7 would make more sense. But then its name would be all wrong. Pssst, Suzuki. This is the real Grand Vitara, not that V6-powered Vitara currently wearing that nomenclature.
Another complaint centers around the quality of the interior materials, specifically the hard, grained, glossy plastic that covers nearly every surface, including the top of the door panel where lots of people will be resting their elbows. At least they've gotten the hang of stereo faceplate design; you can actually manipulate the switches and buttons with man-sized hands and read the markings to tell what function you're using.
Ride quality is surprisingly good, no doubt due to pavement-biased tires and the XL-7's "xtra long" wheelbase. The 2.7-liter V6 pulls with verve, but gets tired when climbing hills. Four-wheel drive (Hi, not Lo) is easy to engage, and off-road is where the Suzuki really shined in comparison to other small SUVs. It scrambled up a rock-strewn dirt hill like a billy goat.
Handsome, rugged and cheap, the XL-7 makes more sense than any previous Suzuki SUV. Too bad it still suffers from slightly slurred speech, making it slightly more difficult to understand than a Ford Escape or Honda CR-V.
"I really love it. Power everything, cruise, power tilt/retract sunroof. CD and cassette (stereo sounds decent), beautiful white pearl paint, deep tint windows...all standard with this line. We are a family of four, plus one large dog, and had been looking at either the Passat wagon or the Toyota Sienna. We were going to save up a down payment for either one to make our monthlies more affordable, but when we saw the deal on the XL-7, which seated seven and had the V6 engine, we bought one. Got it for $99 over invoice, about $24,700 out the door. It's a nice ride. Much better than our '89 Isuzu I-mark we were going to have to depend on for a year while we saved up a down payment for a more expensive car." -- luna31570, "Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7," #23 of 107, Jan. 2, 2001
"Just bought my XL-7. My family of five -- with a 9-year old, 11-year old and 14-month old -- fit perfectly. I think it was the perfect choice for us. The ride is smooth and the vehicle feels solid. I recommend it to everyone." -- cartex2000, "Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7," #82 of 107, Feb. 13, 2001
More from cartex2000: "We have the car seat in the second row, passenger side. We didn't try putting all three in the second seat. The other kids take turns riding in the third seat. They like it back there, and that was one reason we needed the third seat --- to keep them separated! We are still enjoying the vehicle very much." -- cartex2000, "Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7," #86 of 107, March 5, 2001
System Score: 4.5
Components: This system is sparsely appointed. For starters, it has only two pairs of speakers. These include a pair of 6.5-inch full-range speakers in the front doors, plus an identically-sized pair in the rear doors. There are no separate tweeters or subwoofers in this system. The radio is a low-buzz affair. In addition to being positioned too low in the dash for optimum access, it has a flat topography, meaning most of the buttons don't stand out enough from the faceplate to make for easy usability. Its only saving grace is widely-spaced buttons that ameliorate the topography problem somewhat. The radio also offers a single-play CD, but no cassette.
Performance: Other than a punchy bass response, this one lacks distinctive sound. The absence of separate tweeters means things get pretty muddled in the midrange region. Highs, also, are brassy and irritating, and the overall sound of the system suffers from an artificial quality. The amp gets grainy at about two-thirds volume, causing the speakers to distort. Nothing to write home about.
Best Feature: Beefy power amp.
Worst Feature: Lousy speakers; low radio position.
Conclusion: Other than the generous power amp, there's little to recommend this system. Also, some vehicles in this class offer a six-disc CD changer in-dash, which would be a welcome addition.