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.
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.