Curbside Classic: 1996-98 Suzuki X-90 – Ahead Of Its Time?

suzuki x90 4

(first posted 3/22/2016)    Land Rover is releasing a convertible version of its Evoque soft-roader, similar to the recently discontinued Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. The German automakers are offering more and more four-door, crossover-coupe hybrids, a trend that started with the BMW X6. In today’s automotive climate, something like the Suzuki X-90 could fly. In the mid-1990s, it sunk like a funny-shaped little rock.

Perhaps even today’s crossover-mad buyers would baulk at the bizarre little Suzuki. While cars like the BMW X6 show some buyers will pay a little extra for more expressive styling, even at the expense of practicality, today’s crossover coupes still offer seating for at least 4. The titchy X-90 offered seating only for two.

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Panoramic sunroofs are helping to compensate for rising beltlines by splashing crossover interiors with plenty of natural light and/or fresh air. The X-90 provided an open-air experience too, however it achieved this through the use of now déclassé removable glass t-tops. A little bit more effort than a sunroof but with less inherent complexity. They could be removed and placed in the trunk.

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Yes, in the trunk. The X-90 was designed in Japan with the then SUV-crazy American market in mind, specifically to “young and young at heart” buyers yearning for a unique vehicle thoroughly unlike any other offering on the market. Designers must have been making a list of “things other SUVs don’t have” and decided on “a trunk”. Well, it certainly made for a unique look. Unfortunately, it undermined the “utility” part of “sport utility vehicle”. With its small opening and modest 8.4 cubic-feet capacity, it made the X-90 – already hobbled by its two-seater format – far less practical than the 2-door Vitara/Sidekick.

suzuki sidekick

Oh, and the Sidekick/Vitara was not only more practical, it was cheaper. In Australia, the 2-dr Vitara cost $AUD19,990, an extra $1k netting you the hard-top version. The X-90, by comparison, cost $23,990, although it added central locking and power windows. In the United States, the X-90 commanded less of a premium initially – around $600 – but the fact remained that it was pricier than the more practical Sidekick. The Sidekick’s styling may have been getting old but it was still a handsome little truck, while the X-90’s styling was far, far more polarizing.

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While the bodies couldn’t have looked more different – no panels were shared between the Sidekick and X-90 – underneath, they were the same truck. The X-90 may have vaguely resembled a car but, unlike many of today’s crossovers which are cars masquerading as SUVs, underneath the X-90’s car-esque body sat a separate ladder-frame. The suspension used MacPherson struts at the front and a trailing link set-up with a centre-mounted wishbone and coil springs at the rear. The steering was a recirculating ball set-up and the rear brakes were simple drums. All of this and a short wheelbase of just 87 inches meant the X-90 was crude on the road with a choppy ride and tippy handling.

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Four-wheel-drive was optional and the X-90 was capable off-road thanks to its Sidekick origins, but the two-wheel-drive version was utterly pointless, being lousy on the road and lousy off of it. Shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive cost an extra grand or so in most markets; in the US, it came bundled with a premium sound system and four-wheel disc brakes. If you were adamant on buying an X-90, shelling out the extra for the four-wheel-drive version made sense.

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Whether it was 2WD or 4WD, the X-90 used the same 1.6, 16-valve four-cylinder engine as the Sidekick and the Esteem/Baleno with 95 hp and 97 ft-lbs. Despite a curb weight of only 2400 pounds, the X-90’s performance was rather lethargic. The standard transmission was a clunky five-speed manual, with a four-speed automatic available on the 4WD version. Gas mileage was an acceptable 25/28 mpg.

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Let me be clear: it doesn’t matter what you or I think about the X-90’s styling. If somebody was “young or young at heart” and loved the styling and the packaging, they were going to buy it. Conversely, somebody who reviled the styling was not ever going to consider it, especially due to its lack of practicality and refinement. The problem for Suzuki was there just weren’t enough buyers who loved it.

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Over two and a half years, Suzuki sold just 481 examples in Australia. That’s not too surprising, given the practical nature of most Aussie buyers; the X-90 similarly flopped in Europe. But in the US, the very market Suzuki designed the trucklet for, slow sales meant only 7,205 examples were imported over three model years.

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Was it a case of Suzuki having the right idea at the wrong time? Maybe buyers had yet to realize an SUV need not be shaped like a box, but little Suzuki was not large or influential enough as a brand to educate buyers. Alternatively, perhaps the X-90 failed because buyers were too clever: they saw the Sidekick in the showroom with the lower price and more room and went with it instead. And, much like the styling may have motivated the scant few X-90 buyers, it put the nail in the truck’s coffin for everybody who didn’t want an awkwardly proportioned, cutesy, coupe-on-stilts.

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