1996 Suzuki X90

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Concept cars are a time-honored tradition at international auto shows. They are flights of fancy, opportunity for stylists to try something innovative or "futuristic."

Over the past five years we've seen a spate of concept vehicles with go-anywhere four-wheel drive capability, regardless of what type of body style is mounted above the chassis.

Suzuki is the first manufacturer to bring one of these creations to life, draping all-new X90 bodywork over the Sidekick two-door's proven 4×4 running gear.

The X90 is definitely innovative. However, there is little fancy and less flight in the styling. It's appealing, even cute, but in the manner of an ugly duckling or the runt of a litter.

Although the shape is uninspired, the problem is mainly one of proportion. A few more centimetres of overhang at each end would have helped, and perhaps allowed the designers the space to add some visual interest without resorting to tricks like the sad little stick-on rear deck spoiler.

However, the fact that I was underwhelmed by the styling does not mean I didn't like the car. Au contraire, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the X90. In contrast to the bland, isolated experience delivered up by most of today's autos, the new Suzuki reconnected me with the road and its surroundings.

The X90 is small, only 371 cm (146 inches) long. It has just two seats and encourages open air motoring via T-top removeable panels.

It is motivated by the Sidekick's 95 horsepower 1.6 L, 16-valve four-cylinder, an engine noted for a broad power curve.

But, it is still a small four-cylinder that loves to rev. The engine does its best work if the driver gets involved, enthusiastically stirring the shifter, striving to keep it above

3000 r.p.m.

Suzuki offers a four-speed auto, but the importer expects the majority of X90s to be ordered with the manual gearbox.

I got a kick out of stickhandling the throttle and tranny. The X90 is not fast: 0-to-100 km takes almost 12 seconds. But, it is fun. Nevertheless, I am moved to wonder what the Sidekick Sport's 1.8 litre twin cam might do in an X90.

While the X90 shares the two-door Sidekick's light weight, it does not have to contend with a tall superstructure leaning over in the curves. The ride exhibits less pitch and bob than the Sidekick, but too-stiff springing makes it far more choppy than necessary. The chassis does stay quite flat to the pavement, allowing the suspension and tires to cooperate on their road-holding endeavors.

The effect is not quite up to contemporary sports car standards. MacPherson struts, and a coil sprung straight axle may be sophisticated for a 4×4, but they're none too sporty.

On a demanding bit of two-laner, a Miata, for example, would run away from an X90. However, in the absence of embarrassing Mazdas, the X90 driver won't care. If the goal is fun on the road, the X90 is easily the Miata's equal.

Some of that comes from the X90's comfortable upright driving position and the excellent visibility afforded by the tall greenhouse. It's always easier to go quickly in a tiny car if you know where the big stuff is around you.

Pop out the roof panels and there is even more to be seen. The T-top also adds structural rigidity that helps with the X90's sporting pretensions. When removed, the glass panels leave holes large enough to create a feeling of rooflessness. When installed they are rattle-free, held in place by strong cam-lock latches.

Unfortunately, the roof panels must be stored in a bag that shares space with an intruding spare tire, in an already constricted trunk. The area behind the seats could have been shaped to create designed storage spots. (As it is, about the only thing that would fit back there is a pizza on its edge.)

Though small, the trunk is box-shaped. Carefully packed it would serve a weekending couple. But, if the weather turned nice, the roof would have to ride on the passenger's lap.

The interior is based on the new-issue fare for Sidekicks and their relations we saw first on the Sidekick Sport (Wheels, Sept. 23, 1995). The dash panel is now softly rounded about the instruments, and both the steering wheel and the right side fascia conceal boombag supplementary restraints.

As for other features, the X90 comes extensively equipped on a one-price, packaged basis. Listed are power windows and door locks, power steering, cruise control and an AM/FM cassette. Power brakes incorporate a four-wheel antilock system, and the four-wheel drive employs automatic hubs. It's $17,995 for the manual transmission model; $19,495 with an automatic. The only option is air conditioning ($1,300 now; as of Jan. 7 it'll be $1,400), but a series of accessories is being developed, including a custom ski rack.

Whether we are seeing a response to novelty, or a new trend, sales interest in this new transportation gadget is strong. According to Suzuki's Mike Kurnik, there are two distinct peaks on the demograph: one for young not-marrieds and just-marrieds, plus another for just-the-two-of-us-again 50-somethings!

If the X90 is the harbinger of a new class of car, we'd better figure out what to label it. As I zipped around in the wee thing, I envisioned these folks running up to the cottage, to the beach, to the ski slopes, out to the mall. And I tagged the X90 a 4×4 Runabout. Not like the extravagant two-seaters of the Roaring '20s, but a new twist on that concept for the down-sized, do-more-with-less '90s.

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