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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suzuki's Wacky, Not-So-Wonderful New X-90

Japanese car makers have chosen various routes in their attempts to increase their share of the European car market. The giant Toyota and Nissan corporations built their own factories in Britain, giving them not only a local source of supply but also a way of bypassing the "gentlemen's agreement" between Japan and the European Union that restricts the volume of Japanese cars sold in Europe. Others have created links with European companies -- Honda had a stake in the Rover Group until the latter was bought two years ago by BMW, and Mitsubishi has a joint venture company with Volvo, building cars at a factory in Holland.

But the smaller operations have had to find another way, and Suzuki's approach has traditionally been different. Already known for its motorcycles, Suzuki has concentrated its efforts on niche products, cars that stand outside of the usual categories. That's the same attitude adopted by Mazda, who hit the United States market with cars like the Miata (MX-5) and brought the RX-7, MX-6 and MX-3 to Europe. Admittedly the philosophy is now changing, with Suzuki's Hungarian-built Swift attacking the budget car market and the VW Golf-sized Baleno arriving in increasing numbers from Japan, but it doesn't mean the company that brought us the SJ, the Samurai and Vitara 4x4s and the tiny Cappuccino convertible has given up on niche marketing. Far from it, in fact, as the decidedly wacky X-90 most certainly shows.

The X-90 was unveiled for the first time in the fall of 1993 as a concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show. Even then it provoked extreme reactions -- and that's still the case today. From the very first moment you set eyes on it, this a no compromise vehicle. There is simply nothing else quite like it on the market. Some people shake their head in disbelief and turn away almost in disgust. Others fall in love with the looks and can't wait to get hold of the keys. The X-90 polarizes views instantly. For most people there is no middle ground -- you love it or you hate it -- and that suits niche-master Suzuki just fine.

The styling is a mix of futuristic urban buggy, 1990s car design, cute 4x4 -- and a designer's off-the wall mind. Looking at the picture tells you all you need to know, although you do notice more details if you see the X-90 in the metal.

But set aside the styling, and you have to consider whether the X-90 is a niche too far. There is no confusion over what to expect if you buy one -- two seats only, a removable "T-Bar" roof and hardly any luggage space. Motoring enthusiasts will spot that that is much the same recipe as a sports roadster like the Mazda MX-5, but the X-90 is far from being a sports car in that vein. Under that funky set of clothes lie numerous mechanical bits from the Vitara, including a 1.6-liter, 16 valve engine. You don't have to go for the optional four-wheel-drive transmission as there is also a two-wheel-drive model, although if you want an automatic gearshift it's four-wheel-drive only. This isn't a vehicle for serious off-road use, although with the right tires there is no reason why the Suzuki couldn't tackle rough terrain. No, the X-90 is all about looking the part, which is why there's the two-wheel drive alternative at a more attractive price.The cheapest X-90 costs just under $15,000 with four-wheel-drive adding a $1,500 premium.

Climb inside the quirky little machine and you can forget about the in-laws, the dog and the kids -- even if you wanted them to come, there's no room if you've got your partner with you. There's a decent level of equipment, with power-assisted steering, electric windows, central door locking, the T-bar glass roof, and two air bags. In fact, the X-90 has everything you would expect in a middle-of-the-range family car, and an interior to match -- which may well disappoint those who are attracted by the radical exterior styling. The interior is traditionally Japanese -- a clear, concise layout and everything well built -- but it lacks excitement. Well, you could always jump out again and join the onlookers.

Assuming you stay put, you'll find that the 96ps 1.6-liter engine gives the X-90 enthusiastic rather than scorching performance. You need to rev it hard due to a lack of low-down pulling power, but this is no hardship as the engine is refined, free revving and connected to a quick and easy gearshift. The X-90 isn't the ideal long-distance companion -- flat out it only just tops 150 kilometers an hour -- but it is easy enough to drive and you find yourself hurrying along quicker than you would expect. Even on wet roads it remains sure-footed despite generous body roll in corners, and although it's nowhere near as entertaining to drive as a sports car or a performance hatchback, X-90-ing can be fun.

Its Achilles Heel is definitely the ride quality. If the road surface deteriorates to anything other than marble smooth, the Suzuki proves unforgiving and restless and tends to hunt out every single bump and pothole.

But you'll quickly forget about these gripes when you start to remove the glass roof panels to let in the sun. Press a safety catch, release the lock and each one slides out, to be stored in the small -- and now even less roomy -- trunk, inside protective covers. Even with the panels in place the cabin has a really open, airy feel to it, but with them off you can enjoy true wind-in-the-hair motoring. Cruising the streets, heading across country or racing across the sandy beach -- that's what the X-90 is all about. There can be no doubting Suzuki's past ability to spot -- and even create -- a motoring trend.

But introducing the X-90 is risky. Whereas in Japan any new product will attract an immediate flood of interest simply because it is the latest thing, the European market is less fickle -- and less adventurous. In addition, the three years since X-90 first appeared as a concept car have not done it any favors, with vehicles from the same era -- Toyota's RAV4, for example -- already having arrived and made their mark.

The X-90 has plenty of the ingredients for fun behind the wheel of a car, but whether Suzuki has got the recipe right is another matter. If you buy one expecting it to be as madcap fun as its looks, you may well feel let down. But then again, your neighbors won't be able to take their eyes off you. And that may make it all worthwhile.

Paul Chadderton is editor of Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.