Two for the Road

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2008

When times get hard—and they're getting hard, aren’t they?—more vehicles are sent for press reviews. The reason is simple: Depressed sales require the stimulus of increased exposure. The hope is that you'll read a review and be motivated to purchase the reviewed vehicle.

So it is that in these hard times a flood of vehicles has hit my driveway in recent months. Let's look at two worthy choices pulled from the many.

2008 Suzuki XL7 Limited. $27,948. A three-row sport utility with the most unique rear view system yet.

It's a rare vehicle that shows a veteran auto writer something new. Most quality luxury vehicles today come with a full complement of safety and convenience items, such as satellite radio, voice command of audio systems, speaking navigation systems, DVD players, turning headlights and backup cameras. I’m particularly fond of the safety provided by backup cams.

But in all other tested vehicles, the image from the backup camera has appeared on the GPS navigation system screen, which is usually low and centered on the dash. This means eyes must be dropped from the rear view mirror to the nav screen, then to the rear window, then back, etc.

The Suzuki XL7 has incorporated the video screen into the left side of the rear view mirror. It's the only place eyes need to glance to see both the view through the rear window and a wide-angle view provided by a small camera built into the rear tailgate of the sport utility. It's a brilliant idea.

And at night, backup lights provide enough illumination for the camera to clearly show a person suddenly walking behind the XL7, for instance.

I did learn, however, that both images—video view and mirrored reflection—cannot be assimilated in a single glance. The eyes still must move from one image to the other. But the distance is short, the time almost instantaneous as both views are taken in.

In all ways, the Suzuki XL7 is a fine sport ute, and the relatively low price of $27,948 is positive sticker shock. This is a vehicle loaded with almost every imaginable feature as standard equipment. Even the GPS navigation system is standard. The only option on our Limited model was the rear view camera display at $649.

To its credit, the XL7 has five-star crash test ratings in both front and side tests done by the federal government. That’s as good as it gets.

It's a three-row vehicle, with room for seven, and the second and third row seats can be folded flat to create maximum cargo space. Roof rails are standard, so seven people could go on vacation with their luggage secured above them. There's 252 horsepower from a high-tech V-6 engine that returns 16 mpg city and 22 highway. It comes with a five-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive can be selected for use as needed.

Suzuki has advanced as far as any company whose vehicles I've tested weekly since 1989. The company has improved so significantly that it can now offer a transferable 100,000-mile warranty for six years. Good work, Suzuki. Fine vehicle here.

* * *

2008 Mercedes-Benz CLK550. $73,035. A powerful, good-looking ragtop that seats four.

If you want to turn heads while driving, drive a convertible. If you want to be admired for your choice of vehicle, drive a Mercedes-Benz convertible.

Everywhere I drove or parked, the beautiful CLK550 drew favorable comments. One reason might have been the smile on my face.

I was in command of a tops-down pleasuremobile with a V-8 engine packing 382 horsepower, enough to scoot us zero to 60 in 5.2 seconds. Not too long ago, such a quick time would have been associated only with two-seat sports cars. But this car is a two-door topless coupe, a four-passenger cabriolet officially classified as a sub-compact.

To say that our tester had all the bells and whistles is something of an understatement. Mercedes-Benz has a deserved reputation for advancing vehicle engineering, and this car came with advanced features like a seven-speed automatic transmission that could be shifted manually by twin paddles on the steering wheel.

I was also impressed with the brilliant headlamp design that triggered turning lights as I entered curves or changed direction at night.

If there's a safer convertible, I haven't driven it. If the CLK550 should begin a rollover, twin rollbars pop up instantly to keep a top-down crash from reaching those inside. And for dreaded side impacts, Mercedes-Benz has somehow managed to incorporate head/thorax side air bags into this ragtop. That's been considered almost impossible, but M-B has done it with the CLK.

On the down side, the mileage is only 15 city and 21 highway, meaning a gas guzzler tax of $1,000 is imposed on a buyer. The dashboard interface to the electronics—navigation, audio, phone—is old and badly needs updating. It's not as user-friendly as newer systems.

The base price is $62,900, but our tester was loaded with features that brought the final cost to $73,035. Anyone able to pay the base price should probably purchase the options, to add value when trade-in comes.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by 3-mail at [email protected]

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