Suzuki Aerio car reviews

Review Notes: 2003 Suzuki Aerio GS (AWD - Automatic) SX (FWD - Manual)
Personality Scrappy, playful, yet functional
Quirks GM daytime running light system; loss of radio reception when rear defroster is on
Gas mileage 24 city, 28 highway 27 city, 32 highway
Unusual features All wheel drive and... 7/100 transferable warranty, digital dash
Above Average Wet traction Acceleration, torque, standard features
Needs Work In Acceleration and... Instrument panel lighting control; strength of windshield wiper arms
Bottom-scraper test Pass Marginal pass
Car reviews written by David Zatz

The Suzuki Aerio is a surprisingly fun and enjoyable car, even though, in some ways, it's a throwback. The interior is refreshingly spartan, without such frills as a covered center console or power leather seats, but it's clean and well executed, with an incredibly high roof providing a sense of spaciousness. The small but well-designed instrument panel includes a tachometer, gas and temperature gauges, speedometer, and odometer - all digital. The climate controls are simple but effective, unpretentious and useful. Performance is good enough to be fun, not good enough to challenge sports cars, but certainly more than enough for most people, even with the automatic.

The surprising thing about this car is how thoroughly likable the total package becomes. We've driven many cars with far more frills (and far higher price tags) that were not nearly as enjoyable. It recaptures the fun we had with the Volkswagen Rabbit and Dodge Neon - both of which have morphed into more sophisticated, and less fun, creatures.

Handling is good, despite some tire squeal which tended to be most prevalent when we were accelerating in the five-speed version. Indeed, rapid acceleration was often accompanied by tire chirping, especially on turns. We attribute this mostly to the tires, and note that you can get a good set of performance tires for under $300. The all wheel drive model, as you might expect, did not have this problem, largely because all four tires are taking power at once.

The small engine is spirited and provides considerably more power than most competitors, with 141 horses (145 on the GS) besting the Civic EX (125), base Dodge Neon (133), and the Toyota Corolla (140). Torque is also there for low-end grunt, hill-climbing, and accelerating while the air is on, with 136 lb-ft coming in at 3,000 rpm (compare that to the Civic EX at about 100 lb-ft!). Acceleration is fast enough to be fun without being too fast for the average driver's comfort. In short, you can make good speed without getting into trouble. Shifting is easy, thanks to a light clutch and nicely designed stick that glides right into place. Most power is made at the high end (maximum horsepower is at 5,700 rpm), which makes shifting easier but means you have to downshift if you're at the legal limit on the highway. That's not much of a sacrifice in this car.

The automatic saps quite a bit of the power and economy of the Aerio. Its rubbery shifts are not endearing, and by making the engine work harder, it makes the engine sound buzzy going up hills. The combination of air conditioning, all wheel drive, and the automatic made the Aero GS seem almost lethargic up hills, though its highway-ramp acceleration is still satisfactory.

Gas mileage isn't bad, at 26 city and 32 highway with a manual transmission,but doesn't come up to many other small cars. The automatic knocks that down into the 20s. Maintenance costs will be lowered a bit (along with risk) thanks to a real timing chain, and tuneups are fairly easy thanks to direct ignition (no fuel adjustments, no timing adjustments, no distributor).

The Aerio SX comes with an interesting list of standard features, including antilock brakes, air, cruise, a six-speaker CD, tilt steering, driver's seat height adjuster, underseat storage, fog lamps, remote keyless entry, power locks and mirrors, rear wiper/washer, and alloy wheels with low-profile tires. That's a pretty impressive list of equipment for a car that doesn't come with floor mats, an ignition key light or fancy lighting controls, power memory, or an expensive-looking interior. It's almost as though Suzuki asked drivers what they felt was important and built the car around their needs. The GS is similarly equipped.

The instrument panel is totally blackened out when the engine is off, but includes a curved digital tachometer (labelled up to 8,000 rpm but with elements only going to 6,500 rpm) and other displays, in a well-chosen amber color that doesn't hurt night vision. The speedometer is large and bold, and the elements are well chosen so the numbers are always clear, making it easy to use. Our only gripe is the number of elements in the temperature and fuel gauges - we'd like more elements for more precise readings - and the way you dim the display at night (by pressing a button multiple times). This panel is clearly a money-saving device (since just about all instrument panels are now computer-driven), which also makes it easier to make the car in a right-hand-drive configuration. You can even see the panel covering up the right-side panel (not installed in left-hand-drive cars).

The thermometer on our GS was a simple blue light, which went off after the engine warmed up. Presumably there is an overheat light as well.

The cruise control is set from a button by the climate controls, which lights green when the system is activated. Lock in a speed, and "cruise" appears on the instrument panel - a nice system, since it tells both when the system is on and, more important, when it's actually in use. The cruise controls are sensibly arranged on the end of the right-hand stalk.

The climate controls are also sensible and simple, with large dials for the temperature, fan, and vents, and smaller ones for recirculation, air conditioning, and the rear defroster. The cluster also includes the rear wiper/washer controls. The fan is quiet except at higher speeds, and the air conditioning is strong enough to be effective but not strong enough to overpower the engine. Those in very hot climates will probably prefer a Neon's air, but in any case the air felt colder than in a Corolla or Civic. The stereo is better than most, with strong but not overpowering bass response and good stereo separation.

The lack of a covered center console is partly made up with map pockets and a well-designed, securely-held underseat tray (under the passenger seat). There are two forward cupholders with removable inserts and one rearward cupholder in the center console area. A locking center console is also part of the rear seats, and it can provide another cupholder.

As one would expect in a modern wagon, the rear seats fold and flip for better storage. They have the usual 20/30 split so you can seat three to five four people and still carry a long piece of cargo - not too long, because the Aerio is tall, not long.

Both front and rear seating room is generous. The impression of space is helped by a low dashboard, the exceptionally tall roof, and little front triangle windows. Visibility is very good, making the Aerio easier to drive.

The wagon hatch is easy to open using a hidden latch, and also easy to close. The cargo area is normally hidden by a removable panel.

We found precious little to gripe about in this Suzuki, and lots to like. We hope it catches on; it's one of the most likeable cars we've driven in quite some time, and is much more practical than many of its competitors. For the moment, it's also a conversation piece, since Suzuki's sales have not set the world on fire.

Try an Aerio. We think you'll be pleasantly surprised, if you're the type of person who isn't overly impressed by surface appearance. You might decide to pass up that far more expensive wagon (or sedan!) and take the Suzuki instead.

Best alternatives. The Dodge Neon offers great handling, room, and acceleration (five-speed) for a surprisingly low price, while the Toyota Corolla is high on refinement and historically the most reliable small car.

Notes on the models. All wheel drive is an additional $1,000, and provides very good wet weather traction as well as increased ability to take off quickly with the manual transmission. Antilock brakes are included in the SX, $500 extra in the GS. All Aerios are made in Japan.

Comparison chart: Suzuki Aerio vs Ford Focus, Mazda Protege, and others

The best performers in the following chart are colored light green, the worst in light red.

2003 Suzuki Aerio SX FWD 2002 Ford Focus 4dr HB ZX5 2002 Mazda Protégé 5 4dr HB 2003 Toyota Matrix XR 2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser
Base price including freight 16,000 17,170 17,875 17,465 17,185
Price after Sept 2002 rebates 16,000 (0%) 15170 (0%) 17875 17465 16185 (0%)


Gas mileage (manual transmission) 27/33 25/33 25/31 25/30 20/26
horsepower 141@5700 130@5300 130@6000 130@6000 150@5600
torque (lb.-f.t) 135@3000 135@4500 135@4000 125@4200 162@4000


type front disc rear drum front disc rear drum 4 wheel disc front disc rear drum 4 wheel disc
abs standard option option option option (with traction control)
Weight (manual transmission, FWD) 2,668 2,600 2,716 2,701 3,108


Front legroom 41.4 43.1 42.2 41.8 41.0
Rear legroom 35.2 37.6 35.4 36.3 40.9
Front Headroom 40.6 38.7 39.3 40.6 40.4
Rear Headroom 39 38.5 37.4 39.8 39.6
Passenger Volume (cubic feet) 103.6 93.86 92.66 96.2 107
Cargo Volume (seats folded) 63.7 n.a. n.a. 53.2 n.a.
Exterior Length 166.5 168.1 170.5 171.3 168.8
Exterior Width 67.7 66.9 67.1 69.9 67.1
Exterior Height 60.8 56.3 57.8 60.6 63.0
Wheelbase 97.6 103 102.8 102.4 103


Bumper to Bumper 3/36 3/36 3/50 3/36 3/36
Powertrain 7/100 5/50 no add'l no add'l 7/70