November 21, 2000

2001 Suzuki XL-7

First Drive: Suzuki XL-7

by Greg Wilson

Longer and roomier than a Grand Vitara, the new Suzuki XL-7 ranges in price from $28,995 to $33,995.

Perhaps Suzuki should have called it the Grand Vitara XL instead of just XL-7 (XL in XL-7 stands for extra-large). The new Suzuki XL-7 sport-utility vehicle is essentially a Grand Vitara that’s been stretched by 485 mm (19 inches), has a bigger V6 engine with 15 more horsepower, three rows of seats instead of two rows, more cargo room, and two larger rear doors.

It’s the only SUV in the compact category with three rows of seats, so it’s the only one able to seat seven passengers. The standard third row seat, however, has very little legroom, and is suitable only for small children. That’s OK with Suzuki because they’re aiming this nifty little SUV at parents with young children who want a sporty utility vehicle that’s easy to drive around town, has lots of room for the kids and their cargo, and has the security of four-wheel-drive.

The XL-7 has a standard 170 horsepower 2.7 litre V6 engine (compared to the Grand Vitara’s 155 horsepower 2.5 litre V6 engine). The revised 2.7 litre engine has a new timing chain instead of a timing belt which means that it doesn’t have to be changed at about 100,000 km or so. The engine’s standard towing capacity of 1361 kg (3000 lb.) is good for a small SUV, but it’s fuel consumption is not very good: 13.8 l/100 km (21 mpg) city and 10.9 l/100 km (26 mpg) highway. The XL-7 can be had with both a manual or automatic transmission, but the manual transmission is available only on base models.

click for larger image2001 Suzuki XL-7
2001 Suzuki XL-7
2001 Suzuki XL-7
2001 Suzuki XL-7
2001 Suzuki XL-7click for larger image

Unlike a lot of car-based compact SUV’s, the XL-7 has a truck-like ladder frame design, a solid rear axle, and a part-time four-wheel-drive system with a Low Range gear (instead of a full-time four-wheel-drive system). With part-time 4WD, the driver has to manually engage four-wheel-drive on loose surfaces and cannot run in four-wheel-drive on dry, paved surfaces. However, the Low Range gear enables the XL-7 to traverse really steep hills and use the engine as a braking device.

Versatile seating arrangements make the XL-7 an attractive family vehicle. The 60/40 split second row seats slide fore and aft and have folding seatbacks. The third row 50/50 split rear seats also have folding seatbacks. With both 2nd and 3rd row seatbacks folded, there is a more-or-less flat loading floor for about 72 cubic feet of cargo, more than in most compact SUV’s. There’s also storage under the cargo floor and under the passenger seat. In addition, up to 45 kg (100 lb.) of cargo can be carried on the standard roof rack. At the rear, the tailgate opens sideways towards the curb, and the spare tire which is mounted on the tailgate, swings with it.

For a base price of $28,995, standard equipment includes the V6 engine, part-time 4WD, a five-speed manual transmission, air conditioning, third-row seat, power windows and door locks, keyless remote, power mirrors, AM/FM/CD, tilt steering wheel, block heater, rear wiper/washer, front folding armrests, P235/60R-16 inch tires, and ABS. A 4-speed automatic transmission is another $1,600.

The XL-7 Plus model has a standard automatic transmission plus rear air conditioning with separate controls for rear passengers, alloy wheels, cruise control, and a hard plastic spare tire cover. Top-of-the-line Touring models, $33,595, add power tilt glass sunroof with sunshade, fog lamps and rear spoiler.

I spent a day driving the XL-7 on and off pavement and was genuinely impressed with its powertrain (with the automatic transmission), the suspension, the interior, and the overall driving experience. The 2.7 litre DOHC 16 valve V6 is really smooth and quiet, and the automatic transmission changes with equally smooth precision. The manual transmission, however, is balky and the clutch effort is stiff. Handling is surprisingly good for a tall SUV with a solid rear axle, and the ride is very comfortable – better than the Grand Vitara because of its 12.6 inch longer wheelbase. Off-road as well, the suspension damps out the bumps really well. 4WD High can be engaged ‘on the fly’ up to 100 km/h by pushing forwards on a floor-mounted shift lever. 4WD Low is engaged after the vehicle is stopped.

The driver sits up high and has excellent outward visibility. A fairly low step-in height makes it easy to get in and out. The XL-7’s extra-long rear doors make it easy to access the second row seat, but to reach the third row, the second row seat must be slid forwards and the seatback folded down – the second row doesn’t tumble forwards. I sat in the second row and then tried to ‘sit behind myself’ in the third row – I’m average height, and there wasn’t enough legroom for me, though there is plenty of headroom. My guess is that children under five feet tall could sit in the third row. In addition, though the second row seat has three seatbelts, it’s better suited to two people.

The cargo area is accessed by a large door which opens sideways. This presents a very large cargo opening with a low liftover height. But like other small SUV’s with this type of rear door, access to the curb is blocked by the door.

Overall, I found the XL-7 to be a very refined, comfortable, easy-to-drive SUV that’s compact enough to drive in the city and powerful enough to be taken on long highway journeys. It’s three rows of seats is handy for ‘soccer Moms’, and it’s one of the few small SUV’s with part-time 4WD and a Low range gear for serious off-roading. On the negative side, the fuel consumption is bit excessive, and I wish Suzuki could have kept the price under $30,000 for a well-equipped model – after all, we’re talking about a small SUV here.

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