Five years ago, Suzuki stretched the wheelbase of its body-on-frame Grand Vitara a foot, added a third-row seat, and called it the XL-7. A good off-roader, the XL-7 offered blase on-road performance, tight quarters, and a stark interior. The trade-off came in favorable fuel economy and a reasonable price.
For the second-generation XL-7 (yes, the hyphen has been dropped), Suzuki changes lanes in a big way, exchanging the ladder frame for unibody construction, swapping rear drive for front drive, and losing the low-range for a clutch-pack Getrag-built AWD configuration. While loyal XL-7 fans may fume about Suzuki changing its beloved SUV into a crossover, the new XL-7 offers more of everything, power, interior volume, and amenities, than its predecessor, and it still won't break the bank.
Built on GM's Theta platform (under the Equinox, Vue, and Torrent), the XL-7 utilizes a GM-designed/Suzuki-built 3.6-liter DOHC V-6, delivering 252 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque to the standard-issue five-speed manumatic. Front drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is optional. The Suzuki powertrain has a good power delivery feel with crisp shifts. Initial throttle tip-in is a bit soft, but the manumatic shifting is confident and solid.
With its MacPherson front/multilink rear suspension, the XL-7 delivers a nimble, carlike ride and is especially forgiving on washboard roads. In seven-seat configuration, self-leveling Nivomat rear shocks are standard and will come in handy when towing a small boat or trailer, up to 3500 pounds. On twisty mountain roads, the steering feels overboosted and numb, and the AWD system is more for slippery-road confidence than trail exploration, although the XL-7 AWD does offer a locking center differential.
Inside, Suzuki designers have given more than most would expect from a mid-$20K utility vehicle. Cloth-lined front bucket seats provide ample support, and the second row handles two adults or three teens with ease. The upscale cabin includes rear-seat DVD entertainment; a navigation system and sunroof are available.
Competing against the Nissan Murano, Honda Pilot, and Hyundai Santa Fe, the XL-7 offers a good value: Starting at around $23,000 and maxing out just south of $30K, Suzuki's latest iteration may be a departure from its former self, but it hits the family market squarely on target, offering style, creature comforts, and capability in a fun-to-drive package that won't tap into the kids' college fund.