DETROIT - Guess what was the hottest Japanese carmaker was last year. No, it wasn't Toyota. It wasn't Honda and it wasn't Nissan either. It was Suzuki. Yep, Suzuki, which seems to have more traction in two- wheelers, as in motorcycles, than four- wheeled vehicles in this market.
We had the opportunity to test drive two Suzuki products recently and found them both better than average. But they also indicate a changing of the guard that applies to the entire US auto industry.
The 2007 Grand Vitara was a truck based SUV. We had the four- wheel- drive version. It had what you'd expect for a sport- utility equipped to crawl over rocks. There was a low- gear, locking differentials and it could tow up to 3,000 pounds.
It was powered by a 185 horsepower V6 that made 184 pounds- feet of torque. Our engine was mated to a five- speed automatic transmission. A five- speed manual transmission is also available. Prices start at $25,419 for the four- wheel- drive model.
We found absolutely nothing wrong with the five- passenger Vitara. It had a bunch of goodies like an in dash six disc CD player with MP3 capability, moon roof and a satellite ready radio.
The Grand Vitara rode well, it was comfortable to drive and it provided that raised seating position that gave a sense of safety and a command view of the road. Its only problem was that it wasn't the Suzuki XL7.
We had the opportunity and the pleasure of driving the XL7 right after we got out of the Grand Vitara. The seven- passenger XL7 is the wave of the future. It is a crossover vehicle. Last year, crossovers outsold regular sport- utilities and our bet is that it's going to stay that way until the next automotive trend is upon us.
By using the same type of construction as a passenger car, the XL7 handled better, rode better and was simply more refined in its interior layout than the Grand Vitara. Not that it was better in the sense of build quality or anything else, but it was a matter of what do you like and what do you need.
The Vitara is definitely for the consumer who wants a vehicle that conveys ruggedness and can get rugged when needed. It can actually slosh through the woods. On the other hand, the XL7 is for the consumer who doesn't want to rough it and doesn't need the security of driving a vehicle that can.
However, the XL7 can be equipped with all- wheel- drive which is more than capable of handling the snow and sleet of inclement weather. It was powered by a 3.2- liter V6 engine that made 252 horsepower and 243 pounds- feet of torque. The only transmission was a five- speed automatic.
We found the XL7 really sophisticated. Fit and finish were passenger car quality. Ergonomically, the instruments were easy to reach and easy to operate. Our test vehicle was outfitted with a touch screen navigation system, satellite radio, side curtain airbags, and wood- like trim. It really was impressive.
At $31,749, it was a bit of a bargain. The XL7's challenge is to gain recognition in an awfully crowded marketplace. With more advertising and marketing that cuts through the clutter, it stands a very good chance of broadening Suzuki's appeal in this market.