In an automotive world dominated by Japanese nameplates like Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda, Suzuki is clearly an upstart. Nevertheless its brimming fleet of cars, wagons and SUVs has established this Japanese automaker within a well defined, much appreciated niche where compact versatility and bargain pricing are hallmarks.
The Suzuki reputation, of course, is well esteemed by enthusiasts for its association with high-performance motorcycling. Perhaps this reputation, combined with a need to differentiate itself from better-established rivals, explains the idiosyncratic approach Suzuki takes towards automotive design. There exist no better examples of Suzuki's "different drummer" philosophy than the 2005 iterations of the Aerio SX and Reno EX hatchbacks.
If anyone remains unconvinced that the Suzuki automotive pedigree derives originally from motorcycles, the Aerio SX is sufficient to banish all doubt. This hatchback and its sibling sedan version are tee-tiny little cars. So mismatched are they among the Suburbans, Escalades and Hummers of the road, one might be excused for mistaking the Aerio twins for refugee bumper-cars recently escaped from a theme park.
In SX trim, the Aerio styles itself as a "five-door" hatchback. As its unusual appearance-part dustbuster, part anteater-suggests, this little wagon represents unique ideas about combining sporty behavior, versatile utility and welcome affordability within a single vehicle.
In terms of versatility, the Aerio SX provides proper seating for five atop a shorty-boy wheelbase of only 97.6 inches. Thanks to its hatchback design and split-folding rear seatback, there's an unexpected appetite for cargo. Behind the rear seat is a respectable storage space measuring 13 cubic feet. With the seat folded flat, space swells to almost 64 cubic feet. That's on a par with the likes of Honda's CR-V and Ford's Escape, and yet the Aerio's overall exterior dimensions appear-and are-so much smaller.
This dainty size and a trim curb weight of only 2,700 pounds make all the more dramatic the 155 horsepower produced by a 2.3-liter twin-cam engine. With healthy torque output of 152 foot-pounds (spiking at the sweet spot of 3,000 rpm), Aerio SX spurts into and through traffic like a bottle rocket. It's a fantastic city car. It hustles through congestion, fits into miniscule parking spaces and nurses fuel sparingly. Fuel economy is rated 25 mph/city, 31 mpg/highway.
Anomalies exist, however. How could they not with a car of so eccentric an appearance on the road? Four-wheel independent suspension, typically a refinement, is betrayed by Aerio's soft damper settings. Odd external dimensions give the narrow hatchback a high center of gravity. Accordingly, handling feel is imprecise in extra-sporty situations. This isn't helped, moreover, by the curiously anachronistic disc brakes up front, drum brakes at rear.
In a vehicle with standard front and front-side airbags, why are anti-lock brakes an option? If it's all a matter of ordering priorities, Suzuki has certainly chosen an odd way to do so relative to its archrivals.
But it has also distinguished itself with admirably low pricing and generous warranty protection. As-tested, the Aerio SX evaluated here costs only $15,449. It's covered by a seven-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty which is, moreover, transferable to future owners.
"Odd" is how many folks characterize the Aerio upon first encounter. It's a matter of playing the odds, however, that seems to underlie Suzuki's strategy of offering value and versatility in such an uncommon package.
At any mention of playing the odds, of course, Reno is a name that comes suggestively to mind. Perhaps, then, it's a subliminal association with that Medina of gambling fundamentalism that Suzuki intended when it dubbed its Forenza-based hatchback the Reno.
If the Aerio is curious looking, Reno is the opposite. It's gorgeous, and Suzuki is well justified to boast Reno's ItalDesign bona fides. This is a small car that proves "small and inexpensive" doesn't have to mean "measly and cheap."
But for whatever obscure reason, Suzuki has fashioned the Reno to cover much the same ground as the wackier-looking Aerio-and yet it does so without the inclusion of Aerio's hidden strengths.
Most curious of all is Suzuki's decision to install under the hood of the longer, heavier Reno a smaller, less powerful engine. Reno must make do with a mere 2.0-liters, with only 126 hp and with only 131 foot-pounds of torque. Adding insult to injury, its mileage ratings are also worse: 22 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway.
I simply don't understand what rationale is at work here, since the Reno EX also costs more than the Aerio SX-that is, $16,149 base price, $17,194 as-tested. Oh, and dare I mention the much smaller cargo capacity under the Reno's curvaceous hatch? With a full slate of five occupants, there is room for only eight cubic feet behind the rear bench seat. After folding the seatback, capacity expands to 45 cubes, only 75 percent of what the tiny Aerio can hold.
There must be an esoteric logic at work here that defies the unwitting layman. Perhaps internal savings result from adapting the Suzuki Forenza sedan and wagon models into a sibling hatchback called Reno. Perhaps an emphasis on exterior beauty is meant to distract the unwitting layman from the fact that Reno's credentials pale in comparison to the Aerio's. Where the Reno EX gets a traditional, manual air conditioner, for example, Aerio gets a modern, automatic climate control system. Where Reno gets a modest single in-dash CD player, the Aerio gets a six-CD in-dash player.
True, both share front and front-side airbags, and Reno gets sporting four-wheel disc brakes; but ABS remains an option. It's hard to see why Suzuki would ever risk such an unequal but inevitable comparison between two of its own models. Maybe Reno is Suzuki's gamble that nobody will notice.
4-door, 5-pass.; 2.3-liter DOHC inline-4; FWD, 5-sp. manual; 155 hp/152 ft.-lbs.; 25 mpg/city, 31 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo, 13-64 cu. ft.; std. equipment: four-wheel ind. suspension, disc/drum brakes, auto climate control, AM/FM/6-CD in dash audio, 15-in. wheels, fog lamps, front/front-side airbags; as-tested: $15,449
4-door, 5-pass.; 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4; FWD, 5-sp. manual; 126 hp/131 ft.-lbs.; 22 mpg/city, 30 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 8-45 cu. ft.; std. equipment: : 4-wheel ind. suspension & disc brakes, HVAC, AM/FM/CD, 15-in. wheels, front/front-side airbags; as-tested: $17,194