The Good: Low price, all-wheel drive, excellent warranty
The Bad: Quality and reliability doubts
The Bottom Line: A winter car for bargain-basement shoppers
When it comes to cheap wheels for winter driving, there's nothing quite like the Suzuki Aerio. It's a fuel-efficient compact that, as far as I can tell, is the cheapest all-wheel drive vehicle on the market. My test car -- the top-of-the-line Aerio SX all-wheel drive station wagon -- listed for just $17,579, yet came with power windows and doors, heated and power-operated exterior mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise control, antilock brakes, a six-CD sound system, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Even the most basic Aerio AWD sedan starts at just $16,579 and comes with power windows, doors, and locks; steering-wheel-mounted controls; a tilt steering wheel; and a keyless entry system. All versions of the car come standard with a peppy 2.3 liter inline four-cylinder engine that generates an impressive 155 horsepower, making it far more powerful than rival compacts.
And, if you buy one before the end of February, the company is offering a $750 cash rebate, which can be combined with additional $500 rebates for recent college grads, active military personnel, and current Suzuki owners. That means many buyers are coming off the sales lots with a loaded-up all-wheel-drive Aerio for around 16 grand.
RATTLE AND HUM.
To give you an idea how cheap that is, the bottom-of-the-line Kia Sportage with all-wheel drive starts out at $19,000 -- and that's with far fewer standard features, a smaller engine, and a manual transmission. With features like an Aerio's, an all-wheel drive Pontiac Vibe or Toyota Matrix (sister models made in a General Motors (GM)-Toyota (TM) joint venture) starts at $21,000 but has a much smaller 118 horsepower engine. If you can wait, another alternative to consider is the new 2007 Dodge Caliber compact wagon, which is due out this summer. But it, too, will cost considerably more than an Aerio: The all-wheel drive version is expected to start out at $20,000.
So, everyone should rush right out and buy an Aerio, right? Not quite. There's a reason this little Suzuki saw its U.S. sales drop 15% last year, to just 7,967 (while Suzuki's overall U.S. sales rose 11%, to 82,101, during the year). There are definite trade-offs to buying a Suzuki because the company is small and doesn't have the sizable dealer network and reputation for quality of major rivals such as Honda (HMC), Toyota, Ford (F), and GM. Other Suzuki models may be much improved, but the Aerio, which first hit the market in 2002, isn't quite there yet.
This is by far the flimsiest car I've tested in the past year. After a week, a loud rattle had developed in the dashboard of my loaner. In cold-weather, the engine sounded like a tractor before it warmed up. I haven't heard anything like it since starting the old junkers with questionable mufflers that I drove as a student. And, even with standard side airbags, the Aerio did poorly in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's side crash test, though it did pretty well in other tests.
The Aerio's design also looks dated, despite some improvements in the '06 model. The upholstery and other interior materials seem cheap. And the steering-wheel-mounted controls for the radio are sort of tacked onto the steering column like an after-market add-on. Several times I inadvertently changed the radio station by bumping the control with my knee. Similarly, there's a sort of exterior visor over the rear window that looks as if it was attached as an afterthought.
I don't think the Aerio drives particularly well, either. Despite its relatively large engine, the car doesn't feel speedy. The suspension is stiff without feeling sporty. I suspect the sedan with a stick shift is a lot more fun to drive, but the AWD wagon only comes with an unrefined four-speed automatic transmission that was loud and seemed to spend a lot of time searching for the correct gear.
The inexpensive, domestically made Chevy Cobalt is much more confidence-inspiring and solidly made (see BW Online, 8/12/05, "Chevy's Campus Cruiser").
Which brings us to the trade-offs I mentioned earlier. The Cobalt, and other cars in the Aerio's price range such as the Ford Focus, don't come in all-wheel-drive (see BW Online, 8/30/05, "Ford's Econobox Bargain"). The Aerio is by no means an off-roader. "You should not attempt to drive your AWD in deep snow, mud, or sand," the car's manual warns. "AWD models are not sport/utility vehicles and are not designed for off-road use." But I tested the car on snowy country roads, and it handled reasonably well.
NOT TOO THIRSTY.
It doesn't have the ground clearance of an SUV, so one day I had some trouble getting through a deeply rutted back road. But it has better traction than the front-wheel drive cars I've driven in rough winter weather, and the optional antilock brakes ($500) stop the car fairly quickly on slick pavement.
The Aerio is also well-designed in a general way. Partly because it's a relatively high 61 inches tall, head and shoulder room is generous, and there's a fair amount of rear leg room. I'm 5 feet, 10 inches, and with the front seat at a comfortable setting for me, there was still plenty of room in the back seat for my feet and knees.
The rear storage area is surprisingly spacious, and the rear seats fold down to create a large amount of hauling space. The AWD Aerio wagon is also rated to get a decent 24 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway, and uses inexpensive regular gasoline. In a stretch of 224 miles of mixed driving, I got 24.7 miles per gallon.
Moreover, Suzuki does a lot to allay concerns about the quality and reliability of its vehicles by offering what it bills as "America's No. 1 Warranty." Included is a three-year/36,000 mile, no-deductible overall warranty that includes free roadside assistance and a courtesy car from Enterprise Rent-a-Car for up to five days if your Aerio has to go into the shop overnight for repairs. On top of that, there's a no-deductible limited warranty on the power train that's good for 100,000 miles or seven years, and is fully transferable if you sell the car.
So, should you buy an Aerio?
I see it mainly as a good second or commuter car for buyers living in the snowbelt. If you don't have a lot of money to spend, the alternative is to hunt around for a low-mileage used car -- say a three-year-old all-wheel drive Pontiac Vide or Toyota Matrix. The Aerio's price is certainly right. I just worry that you get what you pay for.