Suzuki Aerio SX
Though Suzuki is a fairly substantial player in most world markets, the car side of its business has been largely a footnote in the U.S. With the Aerio, Suzuki hopes to get out in front of an evolving trend and catch the wave. The Aerio Sedan and SX amount to a major redo of last year's flaccidly selling Esteem Sedan and Wagon.

Suzuki calls its Aerio SX a sport crossover, blending the virtues of a minivan, SUV, and sport sedan. It's a high hip-point design, the driver and front passenger sitting several inches higher than in conventional subcompact competitors. Also part of the SX package are a tall roof and wide doors, aiding headroom, ingress, and egress. The Aerio is built on the same wheelbase and within fractions of an inch in length of the old Esteem Sedan. Moving up and out has its advantages. For one, rearward visibility is optimized. Another is cargo space, virtually the same as the previous Esteem Wagon despite being six inches shorter overall. Another bonus is the useful, squarish shape of the Aerio SX's cargo area.

Dressing up a tall, boxy, slab-sided shape to look sleek and athletic is no small challenge. So Suzuki packed up its designers and bivouacked in Turin, Italy, to gather fashion inspiration. Which of the Italian design houses Suzuki took its Aerio cues from remains a mystery, but it's obvious proceedings took a decidedly triangular theme. It manifests itself in the tiny A-pillar windows, instrument cluster, steering wheel, headlamps, and taillamps. The theme is a bit forced, but at least it's consistently applied. Call it robotic design for a generation that evolved out of the Transformers. If only the wheels were larger, the sense of proportion would be better.

Thanks to the added width, height, and structural upgrades, the Aerio is heavier than its esteemed predecessor. Handling the extra girth is a punched-out version of the old 1.8-liter Esteem engine, now displacing 2.0 liters and, for '03, bumped up to 145 horsepower. In our front-drive, stick-shift Aerio, that's good enough for 0-60-mph times in the mid 8-second range, on a par with the Mazda Protege 5 and Chrysler PT Cruiser. And because the engine develops its peak torque at 3000 rpm, flexibility around town and in traffic is decent. With 63.7 cubic feet of real estate in the aft compartment, the Aerio SX can haul nearly as much stuff as a small SUV. And when running empty, the SX's low curb weight and fine suspension balance give it predictability, tossability and the sport-compact-car attitude to really haul. We'll add one caveat: Substitute the four-speed automatic transmission or add all-wheel drive, and the Aerio SX loses its performance edge in a hurry. So unless you need the poor-weather benefits of all-wheel drive or can't be bothered rowing your own gears, stick to the manual-transmission version.

More than anything else, the Aerio SX is a high-value package with great fit and finish and a generous helping of standard equipment. Interior switchgear and materials are surprisingly well done for an economy car. For a base price of $14,999 (including destination), the SX buyer gets such items as cruise, tilt, and air, a six-speaker stereo with six-disc in-dash CD changer, remote keyless entry, aluminum wheels, foglamps, height-adjustable driver's seat, power windows/door locks/mirrors, split-folding rear seat, a transferable 100,000-mile/7-year powertrain warranty, and free roadside assistance for three years or 36,000 miles.