Car reviews - Suzuki - XL-7 - 5-dr wagon
Plush ride, high standard of equipment level, third row of seats, excellent off-road capabilities
Room for improvement
Mediocre on-road manners, poor cargo space, restrictive seating versatility, narrow cabin width
24 May 2002
By TERRY MARTIN
OVERSHADOWED by a number of new entrants in the expansive recreational four-wheel drive market, Suzuki Australia has responded with a stretched, seven-seat version of the Grand Vitara known as XL-7.
The largest vehicle Suzuki has built, the XL-7 looks incredible value with its mid-$30,000s price tag, superb minimum equipment level, off-road capability and septet of seats. Indeed, not one rival has all of these attributes.
But does that make it a sure-fire winner?
Not in our view and, according to industry sales figures, a large proportion of the Australian 4WD-buying public does not seem to think so either.
The basic idea has merit, stretching the Grand Vitara wheelbase 320mm and overall length 505mm to get a third row in, eking out more power from that vehicle's 2.5-litre V6 and including among the standard features air-conditioning, CD audio, dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, power windows/mirrors, remote central locking, roof rails and 16-inch alloy wheels.
But problems both fundamental to Grand Vitara and specific to XL-7 remain.
As the slow growth of Grand Vitara has shown, off-road performance indicators such as a tough ladder-frame chassis, live-axle rear suspension, 210mm of ground clearance and a dual-range transfer case with an extra set of ultra-low crawling gears count for little in this segment of the market.
Rugged looks are important. So too is the knowledge that the vehicle will save dollars spent on snow-chain hire during the ski season.
Yet attributes more closely aligned with passenger cars are of critical importance: on-road behaviour, refinement, engine performance and fuel consumption, to name four big ones in the driving department.
In the case of the XL-7, its longer wheelbase makes for a far more comfortable ride than in the Vitara, but its handling properties are mediocre at best.
Directional changes give rise to a discernible amount of bodyroll, tight corners prompt understeer with little resistance and bumps encountered mid-turn can send the rear end off its intended course.
The steering feels wooden and the brakes on our test vehicle faded after a short but taxing downhill run. Pulling up the vehicle in an emergency stop on a dirt road also took longer than expected.
Engine performance has increased in accordance with the bigger size, with displacement now out to 2.7 litres (bore has increased 4mm to 88mm) and power and torque increased to 130kW at 6200rpm and 231Nm at 3300rpm.
It is enough to ensure an unladen XL-7 pushes along without pain, but the engine loses its inherent refinement at high revs and, despite a strong mid-range, more low-down pulling power is needed when four (or more) people squeeze in.
Progress is further impeded with the optional four-speed automatic transmission, which is prone to hunting for the optimum gear, and it soon becomes evident that the engine has a thirst for fuel. Which isn't a surprise given the 1680kg kerb weight and steel ladder-frame chassis - a high-strength construction designed to cope with demanding off-road work.
Though a ladder-frame chassis is often not as well regarded as a monocoque, a "good" overall rating in a recent frontal offset crash test conducted by the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety augurs well for the XL-7.
So, too, will its seven-seat status and much-appreciated features such as air vents in all three rows, fan speed controls above the centre bench seat, a rear power socket, height-adjustable seatbelts for four window-seat occupants, a lockable glovebox, large door bins, a drawer underneath the front passenger's seat and positioning of child seat tether strap points on the centre-row seatbacks.
More than that, the centre bench is perched on rails to allow a fore/aft slide and split 60/40 at both the seatback and seat base to enable each section to move independently. The third row seatbacks also fold down 50/50.
Alas, problems soon arise when cargo and people are packed in.
Of course, minimal luggage room is bound to be available whenever the third row is occupied (an average stroller does not fit without a struggle), however increasing space through the various seat-fold manoeuvres still brings with it substantial space restrictions.
Without floor cavities, seat removal or double-fold and tumbling actions, it soon becomes apparent that a flat or even seamless cargo floor is unavailable and the load height remains high at all times.
Time and again the undesirable result for families will be a vehicle with cargo packed high against the rear-quarter windows - a situation made worse with the absence of luggage tie-down hooks.
Access to the third row is narrow and complicated and the seating positions (seat size, available space, etc) are not suitable for average-sized adults, even with the second row pushed as far forward as possible.
Limited rearward travel of the second row means legroom is not guaranteed there either, while the narrow dimensions hinder shoulder room throughout (a 1780mm overall width mirrors Grand Vitara).
Despite the considerable amount of standard equipment onboard, there are also some blatant omissions including a headrest and three-point seatbelt in the centre position of row two, centre-row cupholders and third-row grabhandles.
From the driver's seat, there is not much to tell the Grand Vitara and XL-7 apart - the gauges remain uncluttered, the seating position is upright and comfortable, and the major controls are within arm's length. The effective "shift on the fly" four-wheel drive system is simple to operate as well.
By the same token, the temperature controls are as antiquated as ever and the stereo, though better sounding than units we have sampled in Vitara, requires a deft touch and often an extended glance away from the road.
Topping it off, our near-new test vehicle developed a dash rattle, had ill-fitting interior trim and was showing signs of wear at seat-fold junctures.
There is certainly no harm in trying to build a more family-friendly Grand Vitara. But the execution has left a lot to be desired.
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