2003 Suzuki Aerio
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

Chunky runabout now available with all-wheel-drive

Earlier this year, I gave the thumbs up to the new Suzuki Aerio Fastback (hatchback) citing its roomy interior, practical cargo-carrying capabilities, good fuel economy, and reasonable price (see 2002 Aerio Test-Drive).

For the 2003 model year, Suzuki has made all-wheel-drive available on the Aerio S and SX Fastback models – a useful option for Canadians who want better traction and safety during those long winter months.

It should be noted that the all-wheel-drive option is only available on the Aerio S and SX Fastback models with an automatic transmission — it is not offered with a manual transmission, and it’s not available on the Aerio sedan model.

Suzuki’s new all-wheel-drive system has a centre viscous coupling which sends 90% of the engine’s power to the front wheels and 10% to the rear. Should the front wheels start to slip, up to 50% of the power can be directed to the rear wheels. The system requires no intervention from the driver, and is completely automatic.

The downside to the AWD system (like all AWD systems) is that it adds about 80 kilograms (176 lb.) to the Aerio’s curb weight — which reduces acceleration times slightly and lowers the average fuel consumption by about 8%. Still, the Aerio AWD is a thrifty runabout, offering 9.9 l/100 km (28 mpg) in the city, and 7.6 l/100 km (37 mpg) on the highway.

The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the 2003 Aerio S AWD Fastback with auto transmission is $20,195, or $2,000 more than a similarly-equipped S Fastback with front-wheel-drive. The Aerio SX AWD Fastback is $22,895 — again, $2,000 more than the suggested retail price for the front-wheel-drive Aerio SX Fastback.

Roomy for four, plus luggage

2003 Suzuki Aerio
Photo: Suzuki Canada. Click image to enlarge

It may be a small car, but the Aerio is roomy. It has four big doors, a low step-in height, and a high roof – all of which makes it easy to get in and out without stooping, stepping or stumbling.

Suzuki boasts that the Aerio has more interior volume than the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Dodge Neon and Nissan Sentra — however, they didn’t mention the Aerio AWD’s main competitors: the Toyota Matrix AWD, Pontiac Vibe AWD, and Subaru Impreza TS AWD wagon. My guess is these cars are close to the Aerio’s interior volume, particularly the Matrix and Vibe which are similar in overall dimensions.

In any event, front and rear passengers in the Aerio Fastback have generous headroom, ample kneeroom, and adequate footroom under the front seats. However, the narrow width of the car means that the back seat is only wide enough for two adults or three small children.

The front seats have a soft cloth covering, firm but comfortable seat cushions, and ample thigh and torso support. The driver’s seat cushion is height adjustable. No seat heaters though.

2003 Suzuki Aerio
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

The Aerio’s unusual orange-coloured digital instrument display looks a bit hokey at first, but after driving it for a while, I found the large speedometer readout easy to read, and the semi-circular tachometer easy to see although the numbers are a bit small. One advantage of a digital readout is that the brightness intensity can be adjusted for individual tastes.

The Aerio SX AWD includes standard variable intermittent wipers and a rear wiper with washer – very useful in the winter. There is also a rear defroster button — but I noticed that it remains activated after you shut off the ignition and turn it on again the next day.

The centre stack has a new outside temperature gauge and digital clock on the top above the AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo. The stereo, which has six speakers, offers clear, strong but not necessarily rich sound, and I noticed the rear speakers in the cargo area can be muffled by luggage stored in the back.

The lower centre console has two cupholders with removeable inserts for bigger cups, and slots for mug handles.

The driver’s position is great: good visibility, a tilt wheel and height adjustable driver’s seat, and easy access to controls. The large windows, including a third side window at the rear and small triangular windows in front of the outside mirrors, help provide excellent visibility. As well, the unusually low position of the steering wheel and dash enhance visibility and make it easier to hold on to the steering wheel without tiring out your arms.

The floor shift lever has a straight gate and the lever falls easily into the right hand. It also has a useful on/off overdrive button for holding the car in gear going up or down grades, or for locking out fourth gear when driving around town.

I found the rear seats very comfortable. Along with generous legroom and headroom, the seatbacks recline for a more relaxing ride. The rear side windows roll down (unlike in most minivans) and the rear windows are large with a good view of the world passing by.

A couple of quibbles: there isn’t a standard fold-down centre armrest for the front or rear passengers (although a small front armrest is optional and there is a storage drawer under the front passenger seat), and there’s only one cupholder at the back of the centre console for rear passengers.

I give top marks for the rear seat having three height-adjustable head restraints which raise high enough for the tallest of passengers. When not in use, the centre rear head restraint sits lower to avoid impeding the driver’s rearward vision.

The split folding rear seatbacks fold down to increase luggage space. First, the rear seat cushion is pulled up against the front seatback, and then the rear seatback folds down flat, almost flush with the rear cargo floor. The only snag is that the rear head restraints have to be removed before folding down the rear seatbacks.

2003 Suzuki Aerio
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

The cargo area has a carpeted floor, but the rear McPherson strut suspension towers are covered in a ‘scratchable’ shiny plastic material. The cargo area is three feet wide between the strut towers and about four feet wide above the towers. The floor is 30 inches long and the ceiling is a minimum of 31 inches high. With the split folding rear seatbacks folded down, the cargo area is almost five feet in length.

Under the cargo floor are a number of hidden storage compartments which can not only be used to keep valuables out of site, but are useful for storing items that you don’t want bouncing around the cargo area.

The rear hatch door has a latch handle near the license plate and lifts up easily. The hatch opening is large and the liftover height is only 25 inches, so it’s easy to load heavy items. I’m 5′ 9″ tall, and was able to stand under the hatch when it was open.

When closed, the hatch automatically locks when the driver’s door is locked, and unlocks when all the doors are unlocked (using a key or remote entry key fob).

Driving impressions

2003 Suzuki Aerio - engine
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

With a 145 horsepower four cylinder engine and a reasonably light curb weight of 1,265 kg (2,789 lb), the Aerio AWD is quick off the line and has sufficient power for everyday stop-and-go, freeway-merging, lane-changing tasks. The 145 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine (up from 141 in 2002) is generally very smooth and quiet, but it gets ‘buzzy’ above 4500 rpm. On the freeway, the engine does 2600 rpm at 100 km/h and 3300 rpm at 120 km/h, and I found engine noise and tire noise minimal, with some wind noise at higher speeds.

The 4-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly most of the time, but occasionally, it shifts with a ‘bump’ from first to second, particularly when the transmission is cold. A handy on/off overdrive button allows you to lock out fourth gear when you want to maintain engine speed going up a hill, or to keep it from dropping into overdrive during city driving.

Fuel consumption is pretty good for an AWD car: 9.9 l/100 km (28 mpg) in the city and 7.6 l/100 km (37 mpg) on the highway. Contrast that with a Subaru Impreza TS AWD hatchback which offers 12.2 l/100 km (23 mpg) and 8.3 l/100 km (34 mpg).

I was quite impressed with the Aerio’s smooth, comfortable ride and it’s relatively stable handling and maneuverability. Though it’s a tall vehicle, the Aerio doesn’t feel ‘tippy’ and is generally easy to drive on curvy roads. Much of this can be credited to its fully independent McPherson strut suspension. It also tracks well on the freeway with little steering input needed, and steering effort is moderately firm but not excessive. SX models come with standard 15 inch tires, but even they look tiny on the Aerio’s tall bodystyle. Brakes are front discs/rear drums with ABS standard equipment on the SX model.

2003 Suzuki Aerio
Photo: Suzuki Canada. Click image to enlarge

The Aerio SX model has a front air dam with foglights, side sills, a rear skirt and a roof spoiler – but though it looks very sporty, it’s not really a performance hatchback like the Honda Civic SiR or Ford Focus SVT. The Aerio is more of an urban runabout with emphasis on functionality rather than performance.

In a way, I wish Suzuki had raised the ride height a little more and put on larger 16 inch tires — that would make it more practical on back roads and unploughed side streets. In fact, the SX’s spoiler and side sills are likely to get in the way in the snow. The base Aerio S AWD model doesn’t have that extra bodywork, and would probably be a better winter vehicle.

Still, the Aerio SX is not meant to be an SUV pretender, and a taller ride height would negatively impact its ride and handling quality. The Aerio SX Fastback is simply a tall car-based wagon with the extra traction of all-wheel-drive.

Lots of standard equipment

2003 Suzuki Aerio
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

For its base price of $22,895, the Aerio SX AWD Fastback includes standard 195/55R-15 tires, air conditioning, aluminum wheels, fog lamps, AM/FM/CD cassette stereo with 6 speakers, power steering, power door locks, power windows, heated power mirrors, dual air bags, tachometer, tilt steering wheel, split rear seatbacks, 2-speed variable intermittent wipers, cargo area underfloor storage, chrome muffler tip, digital clock and ambient temperature display, cloth seats, body coloured bumpers and mirrors, cruise control, rear window defogger, engine block heater, rear door child safety locks, rear spoiler, rear wiper/washer, and remote keyless entry.

For 2003, Suzuki has added a new standard five year/100,000 km powertrain warranty which includes five years of roadside assistance — that’s in addition to the standard bumper-to-bumper 3 year/60,000 km warranty.


There aren’t many all-wheel-drive hatchbacks or wagons on the market in Canada: the closest competitors would be the Subaru Impreza TS AWD wagon ($21,995), the Toyota Matrix XR AWD ($24,110), and the Pontiac Vibe AWD ($26,150). (The Matrix and Vibe are virtually the same cars, but the Vibe has more standard equipment).

In comparing prices, it should be noted that Aerio SX AWD comes well-equipped while the Impreza TS has less standard equipment. The Aerio’s level of standard equipment is more comparable with the Matrix and Vibe which cost a few thousand dollars more.

In my opinion, the Aerio is not as refined as the Impreza and has 20 less horsepower – and the Impreza has an established reputation in the marketplace. The Aerio is more powerful than the Matrix and Vibe, but not as sporty in the handling department.

2003 Suzuki Aerio
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

All four are worth test-driving if you’re thinking of buying an Aerio.


The all-wheel-drive Aerio Fastback is a very practical small car that offers good fuel economy, a good warranty and a reasonable price. Some may not like its chunky styling or its unusual digital instruments, but that’s about all there is to complain about.

Suzuki Canada’s web-site is www.suzuki.ca

Technical Data: 2003 Suzuki Aerio AWD SX Fastback

Base price $22,895
Freight $995
Price as tested $23,890
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre 4 cylinder, 16 valves
Horsepower 145 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 136 lb ft @ 3,000 rpm
Transmission 4 speed automatic (std. 5 speed manual transmission)
Curb weight 1,265 kg (2,789 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,480 mm (97.6 in)
Length 4,350 mm (166.5 in)
Width 1,720 mm (67.7 in.)
Height 1,545 mm (60.8 in.)
Fuel consumption City: 9.9 l/100 km (28 mpg)
  Hwy: 7.6 l/100 km (37 mpg)
Fuel Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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