Suzuki Aerio SX is sure to win new friends

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Suzuki has always been a minor player in the U.S. auto market. The Japanese company over the past couple of decades is perhaps most known for its small sport utility vehicles and its partner relationship with General Motors.

For many people in the U.S., Suzuki is probably better known for its motorcycles. It is the world’s third-largest motorcycle builder.

Unknown to most North Americans, Suzuki is also one of the world’s largest automakers with a giant presence in Asia and Europe where its small cars are very popular.

Now it wants to push the envelope in North America. A few years ago it developed an ambitious “357 plan” designed to triple sales on this continent by 2007 with the introduction of nine new vehicles and to expand the dealer network to 600 stores by the end of 2006.

Suzuki says it is right on target, based on 2004 sales and sales for 2005 year-to-date are up a strong 11.55-percent according to J.D. Power and Associates April 2005 Sales Report.

Perhaps even more important Suzuki’s North American operating profit soared 81.7 percent in the nine months ending on Dec. 31 to $19.8 million.

The Aerio, an entry-level small sedan and wagon, kicked off Suzuki’s growth effort in the spring of 2002 as a 2003 model. Suzuki set a sales goal of 20,000 for the Aerio and nearly met expectations in 2002 and 2003 with sales of 18,441 and 19,823 respectively.
But Aerio was not part of the big increase in North American sales in 2004. Only 9,438 units left dealer showrooms last year.

This steep drop-off, we feel, must be attributed to the massive competition from the likes of Toyota, Scion, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia and Ford.
We say this because we found the Aerio sedan we tested in the spring of 2002 to be a very competent car at an extremely attractive price. Upgrades in 2004 and 2005 smoothed out some of the Aerio’s original rough edges, and the price and warranties remain extremely competitive.

We just spent a week in a 2005 Aerio SX wagon, a vehicle with the same stance and bearing as the popular Scion xB and Honda Element.

We think Aerio offers solid competition for those models, particularly at a price that comes in under $16,000 well equipped.

The Aerio has received several upgrades since we last drove it, the most noteworthy is an increase in engine size. Already well positioned with a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder making 145 horsepower, Suzuki felt another boost was needed. Both the Aerio sedan and wagon now come with a 2.3-liter 155-horsepower 4-cylinder developing 152 pound-feet of torque.

We found the 4-banger, mated to an easy-to-shift 5-speed, very energetic and capable of providing an enjoyable driving experience. Although we didn’t drive a 4-speed automatic-equipped wagon, we feel it would acquit itself quite well. There are plenty of horses available to handle the relatively light 2,700-pound vehicle.
For comparison, the Suzuki has a 35 percent horsepower advantage over the standard Civic and a 19 percent edge over the standard Toyota Corolla and Matrix models.

Another big improvement for 2005 is the elimination of the funky dashboard layout that included a large digital speedometer. In its place are very attractive traditional analog speedometer and tachometer readouts.

Also new are standard automatic climate controls. They are operated by three intuitive knobs that have a quality feel. The Aerio may be the least expensive car in the world with a standard automatic climate feature.

High in the center of the dash sits an easy to read clock and outside temperature gauge which is standard on all models. It’s positioned so all passengers in the car can see it.

Also the steering wheel now comes with what Suzuki calls fingertip audio controls.

The Aerio has also been freshened outside with a new front bumper, grille and fog light design. The rear has been refreshed with clear-lens tail lamps and new alloy wheels.

What we like most about the Aerio wagon, and its counterparts including the Scion xB, is the enormous head room created by the high roof line.  It gives the driver and passengers a feeling of spaciousness perhaps beyond what is actually there.
In the case of the Aerio SX, the spaciousness is not all in the high ceiling. Rear-seat legroom is also quite generous. And if cargo hauling is the soup of the day, the rear seatbacks can be folded forward to create nearly 64 cubic feet of storage space.

Standard equipment for the base SX, such as our test vehicle, is a remarkable at an asking price of $15,449 not including destination charge. Included are automatic climate control, stereo with 6-CD changer, cruise control, alloy wheels, fog lamps, remote keyless entry, power windows and locks, and a 7-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

Antilock brakes, a feature we feel is necessary on all cars, will take the price up to $15,949. That’s still an incredible bargain.

For about an $1,800 premium, the Aerio SX can be purchased with all-wheel drive. At $17,249, that makes the Aerio perhaps one of the least expensive wagons in the country with all-wheel drive capability.

For people who don’t want to shift for themselves, a 4-speed automatic will add about $800 to the purchase price.

Anyway you outfit the Aerio SX it’s a bargain. It’s peppy and fun to drive. And when you factor in the warranty, it makes a very desirable package and its sure to play a larger role in Suzuki’s rapidly increasing sales numbers.