Suzuki's Not-So-Super XL7

The XL7 is Suzuki's biggest and fanciest SUV everbut in this competitive sector, is this where you want to put your $30,000?

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Rebates, improved interior, bigger engine, great warranty

The Bad: Small dealer network, nearly inaccessible third-row seats, hard-to-use controls

The Bottom Line: A much improved small SUV, but still a tough sell

Up Front

Would you pay more than thirty grand for a Suzuki? The newly redesigned Suzuki XL7 sport utility vehicle tops out at $32,384, in the top-of-the-line all-wheel drive Limited trim level with the Platinum Touring options package, the version of the vehicle I recently test-drove. Going that far upscale is quite a demographic shift for the Japanese company, until now known as a budget carmaker.

The 2007 XL7 is a big step up for Suzuki, a roomy, mid-sized crossover SUV that competes with such models as the Jeep Liberty, Nissan (NSANY) Xterra, and Hyundai Santa Fe. At 197 inches long, 10 inches longer than the model it's replacing, the XL7 comes with either two or three rows of seats, enough for five or seven passengers, and the third row is less cramped than in the previous model.

Although General Motors (GM) has sold most of its stake in Suzuki, the two companies still have extensive cooperation agreements, and the new SL7 is based on the same platform as the Chevrolet Equinox mid-sized SUV. Its engine, a 252-horsepower, 3.6 liter V6, is far more powerful than the 185-horse, 2.7 liter V6 in the 2006 XL7. The new rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension give the 2007 XL7 a smooth, car-like ride. Exterior fit-and-finish is good, and the interior is well-designed and much improved.

In short, the new XL7 is a vast improvement over the last Suzuki I drove, the budget-priced Aerio station wagon (see, 2/22/06, "Suzuki's Draggin' Wagon"), a real dog of a car with a cheap interior, poor fit-and-finish inside and out, a too-small engine, and a choppy ride. I gave the Aerio a mere Two Stars, my lowest rating ever at the time (see, 12/7/06, "Chevy's Below-Average Aveo").

The XL7 is a whole different kettle of fish. The five-passenger version comes in base or luxury trim levels; the fanciest, seven-passenger-only Limited versions come with just about every option you can imagine, from all-wheel-drive to a DVD-based rear-seat entertainment system.

The list price of the base model XL7 remains low, considering the size of the vehicle and the power of its engine. The stripped down, two-wheel drive version starts at just $23,534, or $24,884 with seven-passenger seating.

Adding all-wheel drive to the base model raises the price to $25,134, or $26,484 with a third row of seats. Inexpensive as they are, the base models come with a long list of standard gear, including privacy glass, 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic climate control, six-speaker CD system, cruise control, and power windows and doors.

The seven-passenger base model has a self-leveling rear suspension system, rear air conditioning with separate controls, and storage compartments under the rear deck. Move up to the Luxury trim level, and you get a power driver's seat, wood interior trim, leather seats, seat-heaters up front, and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.

With the Limited trim level, you get even more goodies, including either a rear-seat entertainment system or a navigation system (part of the $2,200 Platinum Touring Package, which also includes a sunroof). There's even a remote keyless startup system (like the one in Cadillacs and the new Chevy Silverado pickup truck) that allows you to start the car remotely from inside your house or a restaurant, so it can warm up (or cool off in summer) before you get in (see, 1/23/07, "Chevy's Silverado Lining").

The XL7 comes packed with safety gear, too. Antilock brakes, side curtain airbags, and traction control are all standard. The '07 hasn't been crash-tested yet, but previous generations of the XL7 did well.

For instance, the '06 got a top "good" rating in frontal offset crashes from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Suzuki also has one of the best warranties in the business, a seven-year, 100,000 mile transferable powertrain guarantee, plus free roadside assistance.

In addition to all that, Suzuki is offering price discounts on the XL7. Through the end of February, you can $1,000 on the model and an additional $1,000 of if you already own a Suzuki or trade in certain competing model minivans or SUVs.

The Power Information Network figures that the average XL7 buyer gets a total discount of $1,345, reducing the average purchase price to $26,200. Like, the Power Information Network and its parent J.D. Power & Associates are units of The McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).

You'll also get a nice boost in fuel efficiency if you're trading down from a big SUV—though not if you're trading down from a mid-size. The XL7 is rated to get 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway. In a stretch of 195 miles of mixed driving I got 17.4 mpg, which is about what I get in my 1996 Ford Explorer.

It's too early to tell how well the XL7 is going to sell. Overall, Suzuki did well last year: Compared with 2005, U.S. unit sales increased 23%, to 100,990. Such models as the Grand Vitara SUV and the Forenza sedan saw big inceases. Sales of the XL7 fell 29% to 10,948, but the redesigned 2007 XL7 didn't hit dealer showrooms until November, so its sales are still ramping up.

Behind the Wheel

This a surprisingly fun vehicle to drive. The new, bigger V6 makes it peppy, and the engine has a hard, high whine when you push it. At 4,049 lbs (with all-wheel drive and seven passenger seating), the new XL7 weighs nearly 300 lbs more than the old one, making the '07 a bit slower than I expected.

I got zero-to-sixty times of around 8.8 seconds. But there's a manual shifting function on the five-speed automatic that adds a lot to its sportiness.

There's plenty of passing power at highway speeds, but the XL7's transmission is a little racy when you push the car. It runs out too far in each gear, and the resulting engine noise is annoying.

The body creases and side windows—which narrow toward the back of the vehicle—give the XL7 a crouched, cat-like appearance from the outside. The whole vehicle looks like it's leaning forward.

But once you're inside the boxy cabin, you realize that's an illusion. The interior is a big rectangular box, somewhat retro in design and noticeably lacking in the soft contours and curvy design elements you see in most cars these days. The interior space has sharp, nearly 90 degree angles at the corners, and the contours on the doors and dash are also sharp, rather than rounded.

Most of the interior materials are of decent quality. The seat leather, though not quite sumptuous, is surprisingly soft and well-made. Leg and headroom are adequate in the first two rows of seats, and there's plenty of foot space for passengers in the second-row seats. However, the XL7 feels narrower inside than I expected, and shoulder space in the second row seats is limited.

Some of the controls also are far from intuitive to use. The navigation system and radio, which are controlled by a combination of knobs and touch-screen commands, are hard to figure out without reading the owner's manual. Another small gripe: the knobs for the radio and navigation system are too small, making them hard to use if you're wearing gloves.

I also don't see how an adult could get into the XL7's third-row seats. You have to fold down the back of the second row seats to gain access to the back row, and I couldn't figure out any way to step into the third-row seating area. A small child would have to be hoisted onto the backs of the folded-down middle seats and then crawl into the third row. Most adults couldn't do it, or wouldn't want to.

Both rear seats fold down in a split pattern to create variable amounts of hauling/passenger space. But the seats could be better designed. You have to remove the head rests from the third row seats to get them to fold down flat, and the second row seats don't fold down completely.

The folded down seats also sit up surprisingly high off the floor and take up a lot of space. At the tightest point, there's barely two feet of space between the folded-down seats and ceiling, and just under 30 inches at the roomiest point. I hoisted my 70-lb Lab-mix dog into the rear space with the seats folded down, and his head touched the ceiling when he tried to stand up straight.

Buy it Or Bag It?

My basic take on the XL7 is that it's a beauty—for a Suzuki. You probably won't be disappointed if you buy one, but it faces tough competition at all trim levels. In the crowded small SUV/crossover segment, the Suzuki is still largely a value proposition, though a much fancier value proposition than in the past.

At the high end, for instance, I'd rather have a Toyota (TM) Highlander. But with a third row of seats, leather upholstery, a navigation system, and the other extras the XL7 has, the Highlander costs about $37,000, or $5,000 more. A loaded-up Honda Pilot costs about $4,000 more than a loaded-up XL7.

At the lower end, I'd test-drive the XL7 against the Jeep Liberty and Nissan Xterra, the models it competes most directly with, according to the Power Information Network. The Liberty is selling for an average of just $21,254 these days, according to Power, about $4,000 less than the XL7 – mainly because DaimlerChrysler (DCX) is offering huge discounts averaging $3,276 on the Liberty through the end of January.

The Xterra has an average selling price of $24,679, Power says, about $1,500 less than the Suzuki. The average rebate on the Xterra is $688.

I'd also test-drive the Suzuki against the newly redesigned Hyundai Santa Fe, which has a somewhat softer ride and feel (see, 10/10/06, "Hyundai's Santa Fe is Coming to Town"). The Santa Fe's average selling price is $24,611 (nearly $1,600 less than the Suzuki's) after an average rebate of $797. If you want a Toyota and can't afford a Highlander, check out the Rav4, which has an average selling price of $24,085, some $2,000 less than the Suzuki, and also has an optional third row of seats.

The big question in the end is whether Suzuki's gold-plated warranty offsets the disadvantage of buying from a niche company with a relatively small 520-dealer network. Suzuki is making some nice vehicles these days, and the XL7 is one of them. But on the high end, Suzuki doesn't have the reputation, resale value, and dealer network that Toyota and Honda (HMC) have. And, on the low end, it faces tough price competition. So comparison shop before you buy.

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