Suzuki XL-7 (2003)

"The XL7 is Suzuki's answer to those looking for a less-expensive SUV with lots of passenger capacity. Unfortunately, there are plenty of downsides."
Good: inexpensive, powerful, great ergonomics
Bad: uncomfortable, outdated design

Suzuki is not a big player in the US market. So in order to survive, they had to develop a niche for themselves. And the niche they homed in on is: Cheap. To their credit; roomy and cheap. The XL7 is Suzuki's answer to those looking for a less-expensive SUV with lots of passenger capacity. You'd be hard pressed to find a cheaper four-wheel drive vehicle that seats seven. With four-wheel-drive, the XL7 starts at $20,800. Our test version was a top-of-the-line LTD edition, with a list price of $24,500. Want a seven passenger SUV with four wheel drive from Ford or Chevy? You're looking at 30 grand and up.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of downsides-most notably an outdated design, somewhat tinny construction, and an uncomfortable, truck-based platform with old-fashioned four wheel drive.

At a time when SUVs are becoming increasingly car-like and stable, the XL7 is still built the old fashioned way--on a truck chassis. It's long and narrowbasically a stretched version of Suzuki's five seater SUV. And as a result, it feels as though you could tip it over if you weren't careful. Now we're not saying it's unsafe (a famous consumer magazine that reports on cars called a previous Suzuki SUV unsafe and they've been in court for years, so we're steering clear of that accusation) but we wouldn't be surprised if this vehicle doesn't do spectacularly well in NHTSA's rollover ratings. As far as we know, NHTSA has not rated the XL7 for rollover risk yet, but when they do, we may have more to say on this issue. For now, we'll just say we felt compelled to drive carefully, and not make any quick, evasive, high speed swerves.

The 6-cylinder engine certainly provides plenty of power. In fact, we're disappointed that Suzuki's not offering the XL7 with a four cylinder engine, which would make it even less expensive, and easier to service as well. In our opinion, a good four-cylinder engine would do find in this car with a manual transmission. Our guess is that for marketing reasons, Suzuki went with a six. With a four, this would be a true "economy SUV" for those who really wanted a real, inexpensive workhorse.

The XL7 uses an old-fashioned, on demand four-wheel drive system without a center differential. That means you can't leave the XL7 in four-wheel drive on the highway, or around town. It has to be engaged manually, and is only usable when you're stuck in mud or snow, or when you're driving on a snow or ice covered road. Otherwise, it's a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you know how to use it safely. But manufacturers are increasingly going to full-time all wheel drive systems, that customers never have to think about.

In terms of normal handling, we found the XL7's steering a little numb, and the cornering a little tippy. But hey, what do you want for 24 grand?

Inside, there's a good amount of headroom in the XL7. However, there's not a lot of shoulder or arm space. It's a narrow vehicle, adopted from it's Japanese counterpart, which was designed for Tokyo's narrow alleyways. If you're big, you'll want to take plenty of time during your test drive of the XL7, to make sure you're not going to have a problem with the shoulder and hip room. The driver's window is a quite nearby when you're at the wheel.

Seat fabrics, plastics, and controls are all functional. Nothing fancy, but good enough.

Visibility is good in the front and on the sides, but only mediocre from the high rear window, which makes backing into parking spaces challenging at times.

Like most inexpensive vehicles, the ergonomics in the XL7 were great. All the controls were simple to understand and well placed. And right where we expected them to be.

You won't find a navigation system, or complicated climate control switches. But all of the basic functions are covered. This is one of things we liked about the XL7. It's basic in a refreshing way. You won't mistake this for a Lexus, but, remember, you won't mistake your car payment for Lexus payment either!

The XL7's styling didn't particularly appeal to us. It's basically a long, narrow box on wheels. Don't get us wrong, it's not offensive. But it's rather non-descript, like and old-fashioned SUV-before they got swoopy and stylish.

The rear cargo door opens sideways, which is sometimes nice and convenient, and other times presents a problem, depending on where you are and what you're parked near. Need to load something big while you're parked in your driveway? Great. Need to load anything while parked bumper to bumper on a downtown street? Good luck.

We would expect the Suzuki to be around average in terms of reliability.

Even though the XL7 comes with a six-cylinder engine, it's surprisingly roomy in the engine compartment. That's good news, as it means that most servicing and repairs should be easy to affect.

Getting parts for the XL7 has the distinct possibility of being a real nightmare. Suzuki does not have a widespread dealer network. If you need simple, common stuff like brake pads or filters, you shouldn't have any problem. But when you need a part that only Sukuzi can provide, you may have to wait a few days while the nearest dealer (which could easily be a few hundred miles away, depending of where you live) ships it to your local shop.

At our shop, we recently had to wait 9 days for parts for a Suzuki. To us, that's unacceptable. And the customer? Well, after the first week, she was sobbing quietly, and pushing a shopping cart up the street. We'd only recommend this car if you have a Suzuki dealer within easy commuting distance.

The XL7 is essentially an old fashioned SUV with an old-fashioned price. With a base price of $19,500 for the two wheel drive version, it is cheap-and a good deal, if you're looking for an SUV that seats seven. It's an SUV with the emphasis on "utility."

At that low price, the XL7 may be worth the inconvenience of waiting for parts. Maybe. But, there's that old fashioned, bumpy SUV ride. There's the tippiness in turns, and an old fashioned 4WD drive system that you can't just set and forget.

Unless you really need seven passenger capacity along with the 4WD, we'd suggest you look at something like the Honda CRV. You could have a much more reliable, safer and refined vehicle--not to mention one for which parts were readily available. But if you often need to ferry six passengers from your ski lodge to the slopes, or from the airport over sand to your beach cabin, and are willing to drive carefully, the XL7 comes at a hard to beat price.

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