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2003 Suzuki Aerio New Car Review
So Much for So Little

by BJ Killeen

2003 Suzuki AerioIf you've noticed more Suzuki vehicles on the road lately, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you. While other Asian manufacturers beat their chests and holler from mountain tops, Suzuki quietly and successfully has become a force in the automotive industry. It is the only Japanese car company to double its sales over the past five years. It also was one of the fastest-growing Japanese car companies in that same period.

Not only has Suzuki worked hard to increase brand awareness, but it's also backed up its name with solid, safe, and affordable products that offer an impressive amount of content, value, and variety. Another plus with Suzuki is that it's part of a larger picture that's rock solid: Suzuki Japan has been profitable for 53 straight years, and Suzuki sells 1.6 million units worldwide. It also wins hundreds of motorcycle races internationally. See what we mean when we say it speaks softly but carries a big stick?

The newest entry to the Suzuki lineup is the Aerio, featuring a sedan and a sport crossover vehicle that deliver performance and style without stealing precious cash from your wallet.

Before the Aerio was created, Suzuki developed a wish list that included a powerful standard engine, plenty of interior room, lots of standard features, and a very low base price under $15,000. While that may be impossible for some other manufacturers to deliver, it was no huge challenge for Suzuki.

Studies show that exterior design is one of the most important features on a vehicle; few things will sell a car-or kill it-faster than styling. On the Aerio, Suzuki went with an inverted triangle general design motif that is carried throughout the interior and exterior design. It gives the vehicle continuity, cohesiveness, and a subconsciously pleasant aura.

2003 Suzuki Aerio InteriorFrom the headlights to the taillights to the dashboard, with the side windows, instrument cluster, and even steering wheel pad, the triangle motif can be seen. Whether it's on the sedan or SX (sport crossover model) the design also imparts a feeling of movement, giving the Aerio a sense of speed and mobility.

The Aerio features wide doors for easier ingress and egress, as well as a tall roofline so you won't have to do a lot of bobbing and weaving just to get in and out.

But it's much better to get in, since the Aerio's interior is well laid out and imparts a sense of roominess usually not felt in other small cars in this segment. The Aerio features a high front seat position, which allows the driver to have improved visibility all around. While we're not big fans of digital instrument readouts, it wasn't as distracting as some others we've experienced, and helped created a cleaner dash design.

As far as creature comforts, in this segment, most of the time you start low but are signing over your 401K to get all the extras you really want. No so, here. The Aerio comes standard with air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, a three-spoke tilt steering wheel, rear-window defroster, multiple cup holders, adjustable front headrests, split-folding rear seat, and a six-speaker Clarion AM/FM/CD stereo. And if that's still not enough, step over to the SX and use the hatchback opening for added accessibility.

Other standard features include foglights, Daytime Running Lights (DRLs), intermittent wipers, second-generation airbags, dual sunvisor vanity mirrors, and a tachometer. Whew! Let's see Toyota try to equip a Corolla for the same price! In addition, the Aerio offers more cargo volume than almost every other vehicle in its class; at 14.6 cubic feet, plus the fold down rear seats, you can fit just about anything you could possibly need for a weekend away.

If you need even more goodies, the Aerio GS and SX uplevel models offer power door locks, key-less entry, cruise control, height-adjustable driver's seat, rear-seat armrest and front map light, front seat-back pockets and under-seat storage tray for added storage at a small step up in price, but still well under other vehicles in the segment this well equipped. To finish the interior package, the Aerio lets your rest your buns in Euro-style sporty bucket seats with a two-tone velour and mesh fabric.

Now that we've digested the bread, let's taste the meat of the Aerio. Both 2003 models are powered by an all-aluminum inline four-cylinder engine with sequential fuel injection, dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. Horsepower is 141 at 5,700 rpm (best in class) and 135 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. We won't bore you with the minute technical details, but the engine is based on the 1.8-liter four found in the Esteem model, but bumped up to 2.0-liters.

To keep up with the engine, the Aerio is equipped with four-wheel independent MacPherson struts front and rear, which are mounted to subframes to reduce vibration and quiet noise and harshness, while at the same time providing a smooth ride and controlled handling characteristics. Vented front disc and rear drum brakes, along with Yokohama 185/65R14 tires, round out the Aerio package. For transmission choices, there's the standard five-speed manual or optional ($1,000) automatic.

2003 Suzuki Aerio OdometerOn our ride and drive around the Savannah, Georgia, and South Carolina regions, we had a chance to spend some time with both the sedan and SX, and couldn't help but be impressed with what we saw and felt. One of the first clues to a vehicle's quality is the feel and sound of the doors opening and closing. On the Aerio, we though the feel of the door belonged on a much more expensive product. The fit and finish inside also gave the appearance of an upscale, mid-priced sedan, especially considering we've been in vehicles costing almost twice the price that had worse fit and finish.

The expectations in a vehicle this size are pleasantly surpassed in every area in the Aerio, from the impressive power to the extremely capable handling and linear steering feel. Suzuki admits it spent time driving around Europe trying to tune the vehicle and develop a quality ride. Suzuki should have let us drive the product before it revealed the price. I'm sure everyone would have returned with a figure closer to $17,000 or $18,000 instead of the Aerio's ridiculously low $13,499 sticker. Even the Aerio uplevel GS and SX models are only $14,499. There are few options: ABS for $500, bigger wheels and tires (standard on the uplevel versions), and floormats. Even with those you'd be hard-pressed to spend all your cash.

If we had to chose between the sedan and SX, we'd take the SX because of its potential to be a tuner pocket rocket. Suzuki even had one at the event, called the Sport Concept Car, with a bunch of modifications that bumped up the power a bit and spiced up the exterior. It was a fun ride around the track, and a great way to do a little but have a lot.

If the Aerio is an example of what Suzuki has in store for us in the future, we can't wait. Honda, Toyota, and Nissan better sleep with one eye open from now on.