Suzuki has introduced an all-new vehicle called the Aerio. The Aerio is among the new class of crossover vehicles that are a blend between two different kinds of vehicles. Suzuki calls the Aerio SX a sport crossover vehicle, a cross between a sport sedan and, well, something more versatile. A minivan? SUV? Wagon? We're not sure, but it's certainly different, much like the new Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe, and similar to the Ford Focus ZX3 and ZX5 and Mazda Protege5. Regardless of what you call these cars, they are more entertaining than a station wagon, but have similar cargo capacity.
The Suzuki Aerio comes as a sedan as well.
To a certain extent, the Aerio is Suzuki's replacement for the Esteem (which remains on sale through August, 2002). The Suzuki Esteem has been an acceptably nice small car, offered in sedan and wagon form, both handsome in a conventional way. But it has not been a runaway sales success, restricted by both a limited dealership network and the difficulty of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace. The Aerio is more likely to get noticed.
Aerio S ($13,499); Aerio GS ($14,499); Aerio SX ($14,499)
Driving around rural South Carolina in a polar white Suzuki Aerio SX could not have attracted more attention if we had landed in a space ship with Elvis in the rumble seat. The Aerio SX looked otherworldly in the Low Country. Styled in Italy, the Aerio SX follows parameters laid out by the Ford Focus ZX3/ZX5. Like the Toyota Matrix, the Suzuki goes a step further in edgy styling.
A triangle theme is repeated from headlamps to profile to taillamps. The liftgate has a black painted area below the rear window that makes lighter colored SXs easy to identify from a distance, emphasizing its unusual shape.
The profile does create an illusion, however, that makes even the 15-inch wheels look small. Suzuki broke up the large slab sides with cladding around the wheel arches, the rocker panels and the bottom of the doors, plus little dents in the front and rear bumpers. The side marker lights look like they were borrowed from a trucker's supply store and tacked on rather than integrated into the design, no doubt because this car is sold in markets around the world with differing lighting standards.
The SX comes ready for a roof rack: slide off the four little caps to expose mounting loops for dealer accessory roof racks. That could come in handy for skiers and mountain bikers. The Aerios we saw were all preproduction models, produced prior to regular production began, and had considerable orange peel in the paint.
Overall, it's a love-it-or-hate-it design, and will be viewed as either fresh, innovative and out-of-this word-or something from the outer limits.
The Suzuki Aerio is also available in a traditional sedan body style. In this regard, Suzuki follows the trend set by the Toyota Matrix, Ford Focus ZX5, and Mazda Protege5, all of which are offered in sedan versions (the Matrix sedan is called a Corolla). As such, the base Aerio S and GS share the distinctive front end styling of the SX but have a conventional trunk. Suzuki anticipates two-thirds of Aerios sold to be sedans, but we'll concentrate on the crossover SX just because it's different.
The Aerio SX is short. Unlike the Ford Focus models, which are all exactly the same length, the Aerio SX is 5 inches shorter than the Aerio S and GS sedans. The SX is an inch shorter than the Focus and 5 inches shorter than the Toyota Matrix. This makes the Aerio easy to fit into short parking places.
The tall profile (61 inches tall, or 7 inches taller than the Esteem) means oodles of headroom front and rear. The chair-like seat height translates into more leg room in a short vehicle, as legs can go down rather than out.
The Suzuki Aerio has one of the tiniest instrument panels we have ever seen. Set in a symmetrical dash, it's a tiny wedge only several inches tall containing an LCD analog tachometer, digital speedometer and tiny temperature and fuel gauges, all in orange on black. There's a similar wedge-shaped panel on the passenger side. No doubt this facilitates configuring the car for sales in right-hand-drive countries. We thought we got rid of digital in the Eighties, but this system works well enough, and it's set deep enough that it isn't washed out in sunlight, always in shade.
The center stack houses the standard AM/FM/CD audio and heater/air conditioner controls, all easy to understand and operate. The inside door handles feel flimsy, but otherwise, fit and finish are good. The interior is all plastic, but quality-look plastics. The dash has an industrial-look texture, and despite high styling for the most part, function hasn't been compromised by style.
The big, tall doors make entry easy front and rear, and the rear hatch opens wide. The rear can accept a lot of cargo.
Aerio sedans have a 14.6 cubic foot trunk that's huge for their size.
The back seat folds down, after first tilting the seat cushion forward, to make a flat floor. Remove the SX cargo cover and there's enough cargo volume for a weeklong camping trip without putting anything on the roof. Tie-down hooks would have made a nice addition here, and some people may prefer a non-carpeted load floor, such as the one found in the Toyota Matrix. Two nice SX features: hidden storage under the floor, and a storage tray under the front passenger seat.
If it's hard to place the Suzuki Aerio when looking at it, it's even harder to label after driving it.
The 2.0-liter engine revs past its 5700 rpm power peak with unabashed eagerness. It's not as smooth as a Honda, but it's never harsh, and it pulls strongly with the 5-speed manual transmission. That's in part due to the relatively light 2668 lb curb weight, about the same as the standard Matrix and about 100 lbs more than the Focus XR3.
Aerio uses what the modern compact front-drive layout, its four-cylinder engine mounted transversely. The engine is the J18A from the Esteem (complete with maintenance-free camshaft drive chains that won't have to be replaced at 60,000 miles or so), enlarged to 2 liters, with an elongated intake manifold and larger catalyst and muffler for easier breathing.
The standard 2-liter engine in the Aerio produces 141 bhp, eleven more than the base 1.8-liter Toyota engine or Focus ZX3/5 engine. The automatic transmission sapped some of the energy from the Suzuki engine, as it does from any small engine, making standing-starts feel slower. Suzuki claims comparative tests it commissioned proved that with automatics, the Aerio was faster than its rivals. Remarkably, the automatic surrenders little in the fuel economy department, identical in city driving and only on mpg shy on the highway.
So the Aerio can hold its own at the mini crossover drags. How about the twisties? It feels a bit softly sprung, actually, with not quite enough roll resistance. It leans in corners, a feeling exaggerated by the Aerio's high seating position, and the Yokohama Geolandar tires squeal with little provocation. Suzuki gave us the opportunity to drive a sport-tuned SX with firmer roll resistance and sport tires on a race track and it was ferocious. No doubt the aftermarket will make a similar suspension available, but we think Suzuki, king of the sport bikes, should produce cars with sporty suspensions on their own. Here the Matrix and Focus have an edge.
The Aerio SX is perfectly suited for day-to-day driving chores, however, with a fully independent strut-type suspension soaking up the bumps and grinds of daily driving. The struts have layered valves for progressive shock damping, allowing the suspension to soak up small bumps while stiffening for the big ones. The rear subframe mounted in rubber helps further isolate Aerio passengers from road shock and harshness. A chassis with variable thickness steel helps with rigidity from strength in the right places without unnecessary weight.
The manual shifter is smooth and quick, with a nice, tight pattern. Steering feedback is good. Even if the cornering limits aren't what an enthusiast would ask, there's good communication about what the tires are doing. Brakes are disc/drum but fully up to the task of stopping this lightweight vehicle.
The Aerio SX cruises quietly on the interstate. There's the usual ruffle of wind noise around the A-pillar (which incorporates a little corner window just like the old Ford AeroStars), but conversation or listening to the audio system is easy.
Not all areas of this great nation are served with a convenient Suzuki dealership, so buying one (and getting it serviced) may be an adventure, although Suzuki has plans to increase by half again its number of dealers.
Everyone who buys a Suzuki Aerio SX will do so for his or her own reason. Some will dig the funky styling, some will go for the utility of a wagon (or small SUV) combined with excellent fuel economy, while others will be paging through tuner catalogs, figuring out how to make the SX go faster than it already does. Some will wait until wait until fall 2002, when viscous-coupling all-wheel drive becomes available. It's best that buyers be extroverts, however, and not shy, because until there are a lot of Aerios on the road they will be drawing a lot of stares.