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First drive: XL-7 strives to survive

Off-road specialist: The Suzuki XL-7 is capable when the going gets tough.

Suzuki's XL-7 updated to keep it in the mid-size 4WD fight

19 Aug 2003

This is incongruous, but true. The massive boom in four-wheel drive sales in Australia has done considerable damage to the one of the most respected names in the off-road world, Suzuki Australia, and the update of its XL-7 four-wheel drive launched this month is more about survival than sales growth.

Despite its research showing 80 per cent of XL-7 owners are new to the Japanese brand, Suzuki has sold around half the number anticipated (200 per month) when the Grand Vitara-based seven-seater was launched here in 2001.

Furthermore, Suzuki Australia general manager automobiles, David Le Mottee, said the revamp, which comprises exterior enhancements, minor cabin alterations, an engine/transmission upgrade and a $1000 price hike, is expected to do little more than maintain the status quo.

"The real reason we’re selling less than what we initially planned is the competition all of a sudden has got hot in the sports utility market," said Mr Le Mottee. "Two years ago there were like one-third less competitors than what there are now.

"Where we fell over was on total media spend. We thought we were spending a lot to promote the product but then those competitors – Nissan, Honda and others – launched products that outspent us.

"We just didn’t have those resources."Increased funds are believed to be coming from Suzuki headquarters in Japan, although with budgets tied to volume, and current expectations now reduced to 150 per month, one might consider that much of this cash will head elsewhere unless consumer sentiment changes.

Is there enough in the vehicle itself to make a difference?Rather than dwell on basic cosmetics, Suzuki has, to its credit, seen fit to make a few important improvements to the XL-7.

In particular, the vehicle deletes the recalcitrant four-speed automatic transmission in favour of a Lexus-derived five-speed version. The shift action of the standard five-speed manual has also been revised.

Both transmissions are paired with the now-familiar 2.7-litre 24-valve V6 engine, which with this upgrade produces an additional 5kW for a maximum 135kW at 6000rpm (down 200rpm) and another 19Nm for peak torque figures of 250Nm at an unchanged 3300rpm.

Significantly, official fuel consumption figures also increase, with the XL-7 manual now consuming 15.4 litres per 100km over the city cycle (up from 11.5L/100km) and 9.3L/100km (up from 8.5L/100km) over the highway cycle.

The front strut/live axle rear suspension continues.

Other than the standard air-conditioning unit picking up climate control, the equipment level remains stable – and appealing, too, with remote central locking, rear ventilation controls, a six-stacker CD stereo, electric windows, dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, low-range gearing, roof rails and 16-inch alloy wheels all included. As well as, of course, a third row of seats.

The Limited adds leather trim, sunroof and a rear spoiler, while cruise control is a dealer-fit option.

Exterior changes include revised headlights and a new front bumper and grille, the latter now colour-coded with sheetmetal. Red replaces burgundy on the colour palette.

Inside, the second row bench seat is given a three-point seatbelt and head restraint in the centre position. The bench also receives a much-needed seat slide mechanism to make access to the third row more amenable.

In case you missed it, interior changes introduced in March brought new head restraints, a three-spoke steering wheel, revised instruments and switchgear, more storage facilities, softer plastic trim across the dash, mock wood veneer on the centre stack, and well-integrated and better-performing stereos fitted on the production line.

Suzuki XL-7 $36,990
Suzuki XL-7 auto $38,890
Suzuki XL-7 Limited $39,990
Suzuki XL-7 Limited auto $41,890


Our drive was restricted to a loop around a small off-road circuit and an unusual tour of a dirt-bike supercross track, both of which provided little more than confirmation that this is one of the best mud-bathing small-medium four-wheel drives on the market.

Changing between rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive is a simple task, and in low-speed, high-4WD conditions the XL-7 impresses with its strong, low-down pulling power – the extra torque does not go unnoticed – as well as its excellent traction, ground clearance (210mm), wheel articulation and ride across various off-road atrocities.

The five-speed automatic transmission is also smoother than the four-speed shifter it replaces, and does not seem as prone to hunting for the optimum gear. Lexus-smooth? Not on this first outing.

Without doubt, the second row walk-in mechanism provides much better access to the third row, however packaging and size problems fundamental to the vehicle remain. The most obvious of these is that luggage space is minimal whenever the third row is occupied, while the high-mounted floor and absence of double-fold and seat tumbling actions serve to restrict cargo room even when the third row is vacant.

We must presume that our short tough-terrain stint was a calculated plan given Suzuki senior management is convinced that the XL-7’s off-road capabilities, whether applied in the real world or not, are critical factors for most Australian car consumers – and quite a good deal more important than on-road manners.

Yet we also now know that the next-generation Grand Vitara and XL-7 will continue down the same gnarled, rugged path – using the same chassis configuration, for example – as the current incarnations.

Suzuki Australia has no choice but to continue the struggle against the more popular, better on-roaders.

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