The new 2009 Suzuki Equator is a mid-size pickup truck aimed squarely at active outdoor sports enthusiasts. The Equator is Suzuki's version of the newly redesigned 2009 Nissan Frontier. Equator is visually differentiated from the Frontier by its unique front styling.
The Equator differs from the Frontier principally in that certain options become standard equipment on the Equator, so it might be better set up for the kind of adventurous outdoor enthusiast customer that already enjoys Suzuki motorcycles, marine engines, or ATVs. These include enhanced safety equipment as standard, a unique GPS system, and their own warranty, a 100,000-mile, seven-year zero-deductible powertrain warranty that is fully transferable.
Suzuki sold more than 3 million motorcycles and ATVs in 2007, and most of those owners require a pickup truck to enjoy transport those products. The Equator is one of the few mid-size pickups available in Crew Cab/long-bed configuration. That's a good setup when hauling a lot of recreational gear and some friends.
Inside, the Equator is easy to operate. It comes with cloth upholstery. It's designed as a functional workhorse. Leather and luxury trim is not available. We found the seats comfortable during a full day of driving.
The 2009 Suzuki Equator is available in a wide variety of configurations. These include short-beds or long-beds, in 2WD or 4WD, with Crew Cab or Extended Cab. No factory receiver hitch is available, however, meaning you'll need an aftermarket receiver installed to tow.
Two engines are available. Standard is a 2.5-liter DOHC inline-4 that makes 152 hp and 171 lb-ft of torque. It is mated to a five-speed manual transmission. The optional 4.0-liter V6 makes 261 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque.
We found the Equator cruises nicely with the V6 engine, and it's reasonably quiet in most situations. It's not real powerful, but it gets the job done. It steers well, stops well, and ride quality is comfortable by empty pickup standards.
Off-road, the Equator RMZ-4 manages rugged terrain via low-range gears, a locking rear differential, BF Goodrich tires, generous ground clearance, and three skid plates.
Most pickups are driven empty most of the time. Given that reality, mid-size pickups with four-cylinder and V6 engines can be a smart choice for those who do not require the heavy hauling capabilities of a full-size, V8-equipped pickup. The new midsize Suzuki Equator is exactly that kind of truck, designed to be easier to own, easier to drive, and easier to live with than the average full-size pickup. It accomplishes that efficiency without giving up much capability, for those times when it must function as a workhorse.
Competition for the Equator includes the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Dodge Dakota, Chevy Colorado, and Honda Ridgeline.
Suzuki Equator Extended Cab ($17,220), Crew Cab ($23,210); Crew Cab Sport 2WD ($24,375), 4WD ($27,320); RMZ-4 ($28,550)
The Equator has been equipped with a unique front clip, meaning that it has its own hood, grille, front fenders, and front fascia to distinguish it from the 2009 Nissan Frontier that it is based upon. The honeycomb mesh Suzuki grille is the most visible part of the Equator's identity, as it contains a large Suzuki emblem. Fenders are visibly flared upward and doors, shared with the Frontier, are wide and flat. The side view is designed with a low belt line that makes the Equator seem taller, and bigger.
Mirrors on most models are black, and not overly large, so they seem to disappear into the truck. The rear windows have darkened privacy glass, as does the back cabin window.
The tailgate is another unique Suzuki piece. Use of chrome is limited to the rear bumper, and on the RMZ package, mirror and door handles.
Sport and RMZ-4 packages are also distinguishable by wheel size. The Sport package, intended more for street use, has 17-inch wheels and 65-series tires. The RMZ-4 Equators have 16-inch wheels, and higher-profile P265/75 BFG Rugged Trail tires.
Inside the Suzuki Equator, the feeling is of practicality. There is no faux wood trim or European-luxury inspired arrays of controls. No attempt is made to load the cockpit with the stylistic features of a high-end SUV, but it is practically designed and well organized. Leather is not an option; instead, a rubberized, water-resistant material is the premium fabric option, designed to be easy to wash. A low-gloss textured plastic is used throughout, with bright-coated plastic accents on the center stack shifter panel and steering wheel. It may be all plastic, but our charcoal interior looked nice, and it would clean up well time after time.
The front seats accommodate two.
The audio controls are highest in the center stack. The system is located above the climate controls, which are actuated by simple round knobs. Both the audio and climate controls are so obvious and intuitive we'd wager anyone could set them the first time they drive the truck. There are dual glove boxes at the right end of the dash; the lower one has a lock.
The steering wheel is a three-spoke design, comfortably sculpted with cruise control buttons near the area your right hand would likely rest. Two cup holders are located in the center, just between the shifter and center console, along with a lever-actuated hand brake. The hand brake is a feature we like, as it can be an asset in tricky off-road situations, such as a failed hill climb.
Instrumentation consists of a four-gauge cluster with large tachometer and speedometer, flanked by smaller temp and fuel gauges, and indicator needles for battery charge and oil pressure. The gauges are done in white with red needles, simple, legible and functional.
The center console compartment is small but well-organized inside, and the padded top sits at a comfortable level to use as an elbow rest. The front doors hold a speaker, and a long side pocket with a generous bottle holder for larger drinks.
Getting in is aided by Bluetooth keyless entry, included on all but the base models, which allows the owner to avoid fumbling for keys when opening the doors and starting the truck.
Suzuki's TRIP navigation system, an option on Crew Cabs, consists of a docking station for a hand-held touch-screen GPS that can be removed, pocketed, and used on the move while riding, boating, or hiking.
The Crew Cab seats three in the rear for a total of five. Legroom for rear-seat Crew Cab passengers is generous, even behind front row occupants over six feet. Likewise, the Crew Cab offers head room and hip room enough to keep passengers from complaining even on longer trips. When carrying a mix of cargo and people, the rear bench seat can be split, 60/40, and the front passenger seat can fold flat, like a table. There is a hidden cargo area under the rear bench.
The four-wheel-drive system is actuated by a dial with three positions: 2WD, 4WD and 4-Lo. To the immediate right is the rear electronic locker switch. That Suzuki envisions the Equator being used in off-road situations is made clear by the fact that there are no fewer that six grab handles in the cabin of the RMZ-4.
We had the opportunity to drive the new Equator on country roads and highways around San Antonio, Texas. This western part of Texas was warm and dry, and the roads lead us through suburban sprawl some 55 miles north of town, where we visited Knibbe Ranch, an historic longhorn cattle ranch that served as a base for further testing.
Starting up the RMZ-4 test unit takes only a twist of the wrist, due to Bluetooth remote keyless entry. As long as the key is in the truck, the ignition switch can be turned by hand, lighting up the powerplant.
We found the Equator easy to shift and drive with the five-speed automatic and V6 engine. With two passengers and nothing in the bed, ratios are close enough for smooth, part-throttle acceleration. Once on the highway, the truck settles into a 60-mph cruise at about 1800 rpm.
Up to about 75 mph, the cabin is nicely quiet, certainly quiet enough to talk or enjoy satellite radio without using too much volume. Wind noise at average highway cruising speeds was not excessive to our ear; actually, the major source of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) was from the tires as they rolled over certain paved surfaces. Smooth tarmac allowed the tires to be very quiet, and they tolerated road cracks and chips well, but there was one paving material that tended to make the tires sound quite loud, and a good part of the road noise on those particular surfaces leaked into the cabin.
When passing on the highway, throttle response is about what we'd expect from a V6 behind an automatic overdrive transmission. The engine develops maximum horsepower at 5600 rpm, and maximum torque at 4000 rpm. With the overdrive keeping rpm down below 2000 rpm, a stab at the throttle brings about a quick downshift and an increase in engine noise. But it still takes a few seconds for the engine to bring rpm level up high enough to catch fire and move out. We wouldn't say performance is insufficient, because the job gets done efficiently, which is what the Equator is all about anyway.
The Equator comes with speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering, and it feels light and balanced. There is enough steering precision to allow for spirited back-road hustling, and in relaxed driving it's easy to keep the truck in lane without much need for correction or management.
The brakes, consisting of discs on all four corners, provide easy-to-modulate, very progressive stopping power at the very top of the pedal; there is nothing squishy, grabby or overly assisted about them. We got into the ABS only once, and that was on a dirt road, but the event made only a light ticking sound with minimal pedal feedback.
Empty pickup trucks have never been known for great ride quality, especially not when equipped with high-performance Bilstein shocks, but we found the Equator comfortably damped for a pickup, especially for a 4x4. The suspension design is basic and simple, a front wishbone independent suspension is teamed with a leaf-spring setup in the back. Generally in these situations, the rear half of the truck tends to hop around as it follows the independent front suspension, but we really didn't feel that this was happening to an objectionable degree as we drove. In fact, we discovered that the more we drove the Equator, the more we liked it. It steered well, braked well, and the seats still felt good after a fair amount of driving.
That appreciation was enhanced when we took the Equator off-road, on a Knibbe ranch trail that had been marked off for our testing. The trail took us along graded dirt paths, down loose, dusty hillsides and in and out of a wide creek bed with clear water flowing about 12 to 18 inches deep. Much of the trail could have been navigated in 2WD, only about half actually required four-wheel drive. But there were certain sections, such as at the river crossing, that required 4-Lo and a judicious driver. One of our fellow testers managed to get stuck by rocking back and forth in the riverbed. During the ensuing rescue, we learned that there is only one vehicle recovery attachment point, under the front bumper, which was not readily accessible in that situation. Suzuki does not offer a factory receiver hitch, which would have made the rescue easier, but there is a rear beam intended to make the mounting of a receiver hitch easier included in all but Base models.
Rocky sections of the trail were handled easily in 4-Lo, but at one point the combination of wet tires, muddy rocks and steep hillside made it necessary to use the electronic locking differential. We pushed the switch, the dash indicator light came on and we crawled slowly and steadily to the top. Ground clearance, at 8.9 inches minimum, made it possible to pick our way through good-sized rocky sections without contacting any of the three skid plates. Clearance under the rear axle is a full 10.1 inches.
Muddy sections had been prepared as well. These consisted of 40-yard bogs created by backhoe and flooded with water. The soil in the area was heavy, black and thick, making for a particularly greasy mud. We found that we could run through the mud consistently, but the BFG Rugged Trail tires did require a good amount of throttle to self-clean in this gummy mud. Anyone dealing with this kind of mud on a regular basis, or anything worse, would probably do well to install a true mud tire.
While we did not have a chance to load the bed of an Equator with its maximum payload, somewhere around 1400 pounds, our test session did include a boat-ramp test. Slippery boat ramps are a common challenge when loading and unloading boats and personal watercraft. Water was low at Canyon Lake marina, so the concrete boat ramp was long and steep. The Equator needed only moderate throttle to pull a 3800-pound Ranger bass boat from the water and up the ramp, although four-wheel drive was needed to pull away on the wet surface. For situations like these, we find the selectable locking rear differential provides the margin of control we want. Sometimes, it's the difference between burning rubber and making it look easy.
One of our colleagues took an Equator for a weekend fishing trip towing a Triton TR 20 bass boat weighing in at about 4000 pounds loaded. The Equator had no trouble with the load, cruising wide-open interstates for a 480-mile round trip at speeds up to 70 mph. The driver found that his mileage was just so-so for that trip at 12.6 mpg, which is consistent with what we would expect. When a V6 is heavily loaded, you'll operate more at full-throttle, and the V6 will be less efficient. However, most mid-size pickups are driven empty most of the time, used as a second car, daily commuter or grocery getter. In those situations, probably 90 percent of the total mileage, the V6 is going to get better economy than a V8. If mileage is your first priority, it's worth noting that a base Equator, with four-cylinder engine and manual transmission, is EPA rated to get 19 mpg around town, and 22 mpg on the highway.
Maximum towing capacity, given as 6500 pounds, would be for a 2WD, V6 sport model, and only with a weight-distributing hitch. With a standard Class 3 receiver hitch, Suzuki spokesmen suggest towing capacity would probably become something in the vicinity of 5000 pounds, depending on the model. Anything more than that, or even approaching that, and we'd recommend a full-size pickup.
There is something satisfying about the basic, no-nonsense nature of the Suzuki Equator that appeals to our sense of fundamentals. The Equator offers, in simplest terms, value in a pickup truck. It's one of the last pickups uncontaminated by glossy interior trim and luxury car options, with the accompanying bloated window sticker. You could get practically the same truck from Nissan, but the seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty might be the reason to buy this truck from Suzuki.
John Stewart filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Suzuki Equator outside San Antonio, Texas.