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Life's Grand, but not for 7; GET THE MAX - ROAD TEST: Suzuki's new stretched off-roader measures up to its rivals.

Byline: MIKE TORPEY

OFF-ROADERS, people carriers, so-called lifestyle vehicles - all have enjoyed a rewarding time in recent years.

In fact, for a newcomer to embrace success in any of these categories it needs to either be very good or offer something completely new.

Suzuki's trick has been to combine all three, and offer a fashionable 4x4 that can accommodate seven people. Enter the XL-7, a powerful sub-pounds 20,000 offering built on a slightly stretched Vitara platform and given the 'Grand' label.

The danger is that in trying to lure fans of all these segments you can become the proverbial Jack of all trades and master of none.

Japanese producer Suzuki probably has no gripes about not leading the field. What it does, it does competently and with some panache, as drivers of Vitara - or Jimny - already know.

At a tad under 15 1 2ft the XL-7 is fully 19 inches longer than the current Grand Vitara five-door, and also has a considerable edge in length over three cars Suzuki cites as rivals - Toyota RAV4, Land Rover Freelander and Honda CRV.

So is this the car for all seasons - a full blown off-roader capable of plugging the mud with the best, a gutsy motorway cruiser with its beefy V6 engine, and an ideal MPV for the school and supermarket run?

Well, not exactly. The problem is that if you need to use all the seats, the two people in the back row have poor access - then encounter torture chamber space once in their seats.

You can improve the situation by sliding the middle ones forward, but all that does is restrict things for those occupants.

The ideal configuration is to have five aboard, preferably kids, and fold the rear seats down to boost the otherwise barely adequate load capacity.

Power-wise the XL-7's 2.7 litre V6 engine kicks out 170bhp at 6,000rpm.

It performs well, despite a thirst for fuel, particularly on the motorway and was genuinely capable over rough terrain.

Its powertrain has a 'shift on the fly' facility meaning you can select four-wheel drive on the move at speeds up to 62mph, and for serious off-roading there's also a set of low ratio gears.

Inevitably, though, the off-road limit of most XL-7s is going to be soggy soccer pitches or mounting the driveway slope.

So with comfort in mind there's a comprehensive list of standard goodies - separate air-con systems for front and rear, dual airbags, ABS, CD-player, alloy wheels, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking and roof rails.

Unfortunately the upholstery is drab and dashboard completely devoid of any design. But there's a lot to like about the XL-7 - not least of which is its price.

Speccheck MAKE: Suzuki MODEL: Grand Vitara XL-7 automatic ENGINE: 2,736cc 24-valve V6 POWER: 170bhp at 6,000rpm PERFORMANCE: 0-60 in 10.0 secs, top speed 106mph ECONOMY: 18.1mpg Urban, 28.5 Extra Urban, 23.5 Combined INSURANCE: Group 14 PRICE: pounds 19,995 (pounds 950 extra for auto box) WHAT'S HOT: Seven-seat versatility, equipment, strong engine, competitive price WHAT'S NOT: Poor back row legroom and access, dated dash, fuel consumption MAIN RIVALS: Land Rover Freelander, Nissan X-Trail, Toyota RAV4 I'M NOT a fan of so-called "lifestyle" off-roaders, but the XL-7 surpasses that tag. The engine is lively, the raised driving position excellent and the kids love the car, probably because all their mates can join them for a squelch through the mud.

SHE SAYS YOU certainly get plenty of car for the money. The XL-7 looks stylish, is well kitted out, versatile and the ability to switch from two-wheel to all-wheel drive on the move is handy.

HE SAYS LOOKS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 EQUIPMENT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 RIDE & HANDLING . . . . . . . . . . . 3 PERFORMANCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 VALUE FOR MONEY . . . . . . . . . 4 RATINGS (out of 5)

CAPTION(S):

WELL APPOINTED: The XL-7 comes with plenty of goodies in the standard spec ALL THINGS TO ALL OFF ROADER LOVERS? : The Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7 has lots to commend it, especially the price, but space is not all it could be
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Title Annotation:Motoring
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Dec 14, 2001
Words:671
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