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1996 Suzuki Sidekick

  • Driver

After six years on the street and off the road, the Suzuki fourdoor Sidekick is getting a makeover.

The changes — bigger engine, wider track, firmer suspension, dual air bags and fourwheel ABS — appear first as part of a new "Sport" model.

Although Suzuki isn't saying anything, we expect the modifications to eventually trickle down to the full line.

Suzuki's little 4x4s have always been a breath of fresh air in an age where the vast majority of automobiles seem cloned from the same gene stock, characterized more by their similarities than by any innovative uniqueness. (Can you tell them all apart at a glance? I can't, and I do this for a living.)

The Sidekick's four-door model was a particular standout. Against an historical backdrop of massive, bigger-is-better truck wagons, the downsizing of regular sport-utilities was predictable. In contrast, Suzuki's double-downsized Sidekick was an audacious one-of-a-kind.

Nonetheless, it was, like all sport-utes, a very practical conveyance. For all its littleness and light weight, the Sidekick was rugged, supremely reliable, and it was an adept off-roader. Four could ride in acceptable comfort. Cargo space beat any econobox, including compact wagons.

Performance and handling, however, have been justly criticized by owners and the auto press.

The very first four-door Sidekick was propelled by a mere 80 h.p. Bog slow and unable to fulfill the sport-ute load-lugging mandate, that engine lasted just long enough for Suzuki to replace it with the present engine rated at 95 h.p. and 98 poundfeet of torque.

Although 15 was not a lot more horses, the current 1590 cc single overhead cam, 16-valve unit came festooned with newage electronics and employs multipoint fuel injection. As a result, the ponies were smoothly deployed across the power band, peaking at 5600 r.p.m. Enough to move the Sidekick's performance into the grudgingly acceptable category.

The Sport model's new engine is a double-overhead cam design displacing 1839 cc. Horsepower reaches 120 at a stratospherically high (for a street engine) 6500 r.p.m. Again, however, electronic engine management trickery spreads the power around — with the somewhat amazing result that the 114 poundfeet torque peak arrives down at 3500 r.p.m., 500 lower than the standard engine.

The increased output can be strongly felt in all driving situations, from leaving the stoplight to a manic onramp merge. Although the new oomph is most welcome in highway manoeuvres, a twisty two-laner inspired me to keep the engine screaming away in the upper rev ranges for the sheer mechanical joy of it.

With all those nice revs comes the unfortunate side effect of a lot of engine noise, noise that was most noticeable and most objectionable at cruising speeds. Our tester was a preproduction prototype, and a Suzuki spokesman assured Wheels that the problem was being dealt with. We'll see.

The Sidekick's handling has always been adequate, safe enough, but the driver's sense of confidence was eroded by the combined effects of suspension settings chosen for ride softness, a little vagueness in the steering and the destabilizing weight-transfer effects of a tall body.

MacPherson struts at the front and a well located, coilsprung straight axle at the rear were not the choices of Indycar designers, but that setup got the job done under many a vehicle. I've long been of the opinion that the Sidekick could ride and handle better than it does.

The Sport seeks added sure-footedness in a 60 mm wider front track, obtained via longer, forged, lower-suspension arms replacing the former welded-up stampings. The rear complements the front with 50 mm added to the width of the axle. Wheel size is increased to 16 inches shod with chubby 215/65R16 all-seasons that put lots of rubber on the road. So far so good. However, in an apparent attempt to crisp up the Sidekick's ride feel and delete some of the bobbing and leaning, spring rates have been markedly increased. As a result, any road shock gets transmitted directly to the occupants. Worse, abrupt reactions to bumps and pavement irregularities now

replace the bob-and-lean effect.

On smooth tarmac the Sport points its way around and hangs on with enthusiasm. Rougher conditions unsettle the chassis in a hurry. If anyone had asked me, I would have suggested a much milder increase in stiffness coupled with carefully chosen anti-roll bars front and rear.

The four-wheel anti-lock system offers solid braking feel without the ABS rushing in to help when it's not needed.

You'll recognize the Sport by its sleek new nose and rear bumper that add 95 mm to the Sidekick's length. But the real visual grabbers are the tidy and nicely sculptured lower body and wheel lip plastic add-ons done up in lustrous silver. The fender lips, necessary to reach out over the wider track, increase body width by 60 mm. The door and rocker panels are strictly cosmetic.

I'm uncertain about that great swath of silver around the base of such a small vehicle. Maybe too flashy? It's been done too often? In any case, I'd like to see a Sport in a one-color paint job.

Interior revisions are focused on the dash and steering column, which now contain an air bag each. In the process, the instrument panel was given an appealing semi-round shape instead of the hard squareness of the original. The front speakers now speak to us from the top of the dash, greatly improving the sound quality.

Suzuki still hasn't done anything about the Sidekick's el cheapo sunvisors. With such a tall greenhouse, the Sidekick has always needed larger visors with slideout extensions to defeat the blinding effects of the late day sun. I'll trade an air bag for a chance to see where I'm going.

Otherwise, the top-of-the-line Sport is well equipped, including power windows, doors and locks, auto hubs, a decent stereo and cruise control.

Price won't be announced until just before the Sport starts arriving at dealers (soon!), but you might want to extrapolate from the $22,000 MSRP of the current top-of-the-line Sidekick JLX.

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