Aerio is affordable compact vehicle

Friday, March 26, 2004

Superb gas mileage makes this car a winner.

If curb appeal sells cars, Suzuki should have no trouble selling a trainload of Aerios. This fun-to-drive compact car is a family mover, commuter, slot car racer and colorful Easter egg all rolled into one. I didn't dream up that last description -- my wife did! But she echoed the sentiments of everyone who saw the tall, all-wheel-drive offering from Suzuki. "It's just so darn cute," was the typical response.

Available as a sedan or wagon, with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the Aerio is meant to look aerodynamic and distinctive. It's aimed at youthful customers and, in the case of the wagon, has the space to haul their gear around as an affordable alternative to an SUV. And, as gas prices climb toward the $2 mark, Aerio's superb gas mileage will likely become a strong selling point for all-wheel-drive shoppers. With an overall height 3 to 4 inches greater than other vehicles in its class, the Aerio boasts a surprising amount of passenger and cargo room. Leg room is on par with or beats most of its competition, as does cargo space.

For those of you who are not automotive history buffs, Suzuki, of Japanese motorcycle fame, began building cars in 1954, and 50 years later, is a major player on the world market. Although its penetration in the U.S. market pales to the competition, on a world scale Suzuki outsells many respected brands, such as BMW, Mercedes, Saab, Mazda and Isuzu. It also builds outboard motors, ATVs, engines for various manufacturers of outdoor equipment and thousands of motorcycles each month. Suzuki aims to increase its U.S. market share by five-fold in the next three years.

How will it do that? Well, producing the most affordable all-wheel-drive car on the market might be one way. The Aerio from Auffenberg Suzuki that I tested last week had a bottom line sticker price of only $17,299. If you've checked out utility-type vehicles lately, you know that's a pretty impressive price. Another feature that can't hurt is the Suzuki 100,000-mile warranty, which Suzuki says is America's best. But Americans don't buy on price and warranty alone -- they also demand quality, comfort, style, features and safety. Consumers Digest rewarded the 2003 Aerio with a "Best Buy" rating, and the 2004 model is now equipped with a more powerful 155-horsepower, 2.3-liter engine, a seven-speaker stereo and a driver-seat armrest. Aerios also have the buttons, bells and whistles that attract buyers, such as fog lights, power windows, heated outside mirrors, rear window defroster, split and folding rear seats, tilt steering wheels, map lights, outside temperature display, cruise control, power locks, digital instrumentation and a height adjustable driver's seat. There's even automatic climate control on cars equipped with ABS!

OK, we've got the style and features covered, but how does it drive? The first thing you'll notice when you pull out of your parking slot is the tight turning radius. The Aerio can go places, without a lot of fuss, that many SUV owners wouldn't even consider. Under the hood is a neatly packaged, four-cylinder engine that idles as smoothly as grandma's old sewing machine, and propels the Aerio to cruising speed with gusto. We drove it up to Ava, Ill., for lunch, and to inspect Kincaid Lake, one of my favorite destinations. You'll be happy to know that the lake is still there, and the Aerio proved to be a fun car to drive, with comfortable seats, a smooth ride and precise steering. Because the Aerio is such a tall vehicle, you sit high in your seat, in chair-like comfort, with remarkable head and leg room. There are dampened hand grabs, cup holders and an excellent six-disc CD changer with nice sound. The soft suspension soaked up bumps without jostling us around, and the automatic transmission was quick to downshift for passing power or when climbing steeper hills. There was a bit of wind noise, but we felt it acceptable for a car in the price range.

So how does the Aerio compare to, say a Subaru Impreza all-wheel-drive sedan? The Aerio is 2 inches shorter, at 171 inches, and rides on a 1 1/2-inch shorter wheelbase of 97.6 inches. It stands 4 inches taller than the Subaru, at 61 inches, and has a ground clearance of 6 inches -- same as the Subaru. Its turning radius of 32.8 feet is two feet better than the Subaru, and at 2,875 pounds, it weighs a couple of hundred pounds less. The Subaru has 10 more horsepower, but it needs it to push the extra weight around. It also has a higher price tag.

The Aerio SX all-wheel-drive should get 24 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway, whether covered with snow, mud, or whatever. With a bottom-line price $17,299, excellent crash test ratings, and a transferable 100,000-mile warranty, customers should be lining up at the sales counter.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at srobertson@semissourian.com.

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