Driven: 2009 Suzuki Equator RMZ-4

By Seyth Miersma

September 23, 2008

San Antonio, Texas –

The auto purist inside nearly every enthusiast still pines for the now far-gone days when automakers, conceived of, built, and sold each of their creations – owning both the process and the results from cradle to grave. Of course the results of such one application engineering weren’t always laudable, and the process was (and is where and when it still happens) inherently more wasteful than the modern practice of building multiple vehicles on the same or similar running gear. And yet even today, platform sharing vehicles, especially those between two distinct parent companies, are often dismissed with a “badge engineered” label and cast as being somehow less good than the earlier product with which they share an architecture.

Such is certainly the dilemma of Suzuki’s first entry into America’s mid-size pickup market, the 2009 Equator. Based closely on the Nissan Frontier, the chance to build the Equator came Suzuki’s way via a product-sharing deal with the larger Japanese company. Nissan was looking for a low-pressure way to step up its presence in the Kei market in Japan, a type of vehicle Suzuki has traditionally built very well, while Suzuki was interested in a pickup it could sell to the legions of North Americans who already buy its marine engined vehicles, motorcycles, and ATVs. Suzuki is gambling that the very loyal buyers of its recreational products – already truck owners more often than not – will be happy to have the option of a Suzuki pickup with which to haul their assorted gear — whether that pickup has Nissan bones or not.

The Equator will be offered up with both V-6 and I-4 power when it starts rolling into dealerships. And while company officials seemed happy to have the 152 horsepower 2.5-liter four (and its roughly 19/23 mpg ratings) in the mix, Suzuki only offered up the 4.0-liter V-6 powered trucks (closer to 14/19 according to the Nissan specs) for our Texas testing purposes. The four-wheel-drive RMZ-4 seems to be at the very heart of what the company is trying to accomplish with the Equator, as the off-road packaged truck is both capable of picking its way through the sort of “lifestyle” destinations those in the outdoorsy set are prone to frequent, and offers a configurable standard size bed with a wealth of tie-down and hauling options.

The RMZ-4 Equator – so named for the championship-winning Suzuki RM-Z dirt bikes – that we drove over the torture test that Suzuki had prepared at the sprawling Knibbe Ranch outside of San Antonio proved well-able to negotiate the sort of hazard laden terrain that automakers envision their consumer’s traversing. With a proper low range, an electric rear locking differential, and hardy Dana 44 axles, the Equator showed little hesitancy while picking its way around or over boulder-strewn grades and multiple loose surfaces. We were able to engage both the hill-hold feature and the extremely capable hill descent system with no trouble, needing only enough confidence in the machinery and our Suzuki guides to leave the pedals alone on a very slidy looking hillside.

Between increasingly fast and dusty runs around the ranch and a typically protein-rich Texas lunch spread, we did have time to admire the restyle that Suzuki had performed on the Equator. The differences are most obvious around the grille area, but Suzuki’s designers assured us that more than a few body panels have been swapped from the Nissan. The RMZ-4 also offers up a smattering of unique appointments, including chrome door handles and side mirrors, plus a revised instrument cluster and special red stitching inside. The hard-wearing cloth interior and option of rubber floor mats may also speak to the wild and dirty pretensions of the truck, but all in all, it’s a rather civilized place to spend time.

Slogging through rivers and cresting blind hillocks is fun and all, but we were happy to find that Equator’s goodness didn’t drop off much on the roads its owners will likely drive most of the time – the paved variety. Though not a dynamic standout in any one area, the V-6 Equator’s 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque provided brisk acceleration without too much auditory protest, but the five-speed autobox wasn’t particularly quick to respond to our demands while at speed. Steering response is commendable for a mid-size truck, quick to turn-in and surprisingly well weighted for a potential tow vehicle, though the smallish wheel looks almost disconcertingly car-like for this application.

Suzuki is a small company whose lineup of modestly sized and priced vehicles has very much put it in the right place, at the right time for many American car buyers lately. While a mid-size pickup truck may not feel like a logical move in this climate, the perfect storm of Suzuki loyalists, downsizing truck shoppers, and reasonable pricing may give Equator a fighting chance to turn a few heads in the segment. At any rate, it’ll give the rising group of SX4 shoppers and future Kizashi tire-kickers something else to ponder on Suzuki’s lot – especially if they’ve got a pair of dirt bikes back in the garage.