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Why has small-but-growing Japanese automaker Suzuki brought a new midsize pickup truck to market just as U.S. truck sales were tanking due to high gas prices? Come to think of it, why has Suzuki, known better to most Americans for its motorcycles, ATVs and boat motors than for its cars, brought a new pickup to market at all?

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Suzuki says this new Equator, developed as a joint effort with Nissan North America-and named “4X4 of the Year” by 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine-offers a well-rounded blend of comfort, style, utility and off-road capability, and we can’t argue. It’s available for 2009 in Extended and Crew Cab, short- and long-bed and rear- or four-wheel-drive (4WD) variations. Beyond that, very few of today’s pickup alternatives are fuel-efficient compact or midsize, and this very competitive new Suzuki Equator line provides another set of excellent choices.

A set of unique Suzuki styling elements-including the hood, front fenders, grille, bumpers, front fascia and tailgate-differentiate Equators from their Nissan Frontier cousins. Extended Cab and Crew Cab models offer an available “high-utility” bed with a spray-on bedliner and a cleverly useful tie-down system with adjustable tracks. Of course, the wide range of available accessories includes specialized bed components for securing and transporting a motorcycle or ATV a relatively simple task spray on bedliner.

The somewhat Spartan interior tries hard to strike a balance between car comfort and truck function. Extended Cabs and Crew Cabs have a fold-flat front passenger seat and flip-up rear seats with removable storage boxes underneath. Among the handy convenience features are a dual glove box with lock, a center console box with a 12-volt power outlet, additional power points and cupholders and storage for one-liter bottles in the front doors. The available Premium, Sport and RMZ-4 packages include cruise control, power mirrors, locks and windows and remote keyless entry, while a Sport package adds eight-speaker-plus-subwoofer Rockford-Fosgate audio with steering wheel controls, a six-CD changer, XM Satellite Radio, an auxiliary input jack, wireless Bluetooth and, on the Crew Cab RMZ-4, even a factory moonroof.

Standard engine is a 2.5-liter DOHC four good for 152 hp and 171 lb.-ft. of torque, while an optional 4.0-liter DOHC aluminum block V-6 ups the ante to a more robust 261 hp and 281 lb.-ft. Transmission choices are a five-speed manual (standard with the four-cylinder only) or a five-speed electronically controlled automatic, with or without available shift-on-the-fly 4WD with an electronically controlled part-time two-speed transfer case. Available for serious off-road duty is a comprehensive system with four-wheel active limited-slip traction control, an electronic locking rear differential, Vehicle Dynamic Control, Hill Descent and Hill Hold Control.

The Equator’s long 125.9-inch wheelbase contributes to comfort and stability, while its 206.6-inch overall length (Extended Cab or Crew Cab with standard bed) provides a good balance of maneuverability and utility. Front suspension is steel double-wishbones, and the rear solid axle uses long-travel overslung leaf springs. Available wheel/tire packages include “rugged-trail” P265/75R16s on 16-inch off-road-style wheels and “long trail” P265/65R17s on 17-inch wheels. Maximum towing capacity is 6,500 pounds with the 2WD V-6 Sport Package.

Both on- and off-road, given the Equator’s rugged capabilities, we found its ride surprisingly smooth and its handling reasonably agile. Its engine-speed-sensitive power rack-and-pinion steering gave good response and fairly good on-center feel, and its standard four-wheel anti-lock discs (with electronic brake-force distribution) delivered excellent stopping power with no discernable fade. EPA-rated fuel economy for the four-cylinder five-speed manual 2WD base Equator is 19 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, while the same truck with automatic gets 17 city, 22 highway. With the optional V-6 and automatic, fuel economy falls to a still-respectable 15 city, 20 highway mpg.

The Equator Crew Cab offers three trim levels, all powered by the V-6 with five-speed automatic. The base Crew Cab is 2WD, while the Sport offers the choice of 2WD or 4WD. An RMZ-4 (a name well-known on Suzuki motocross bikes) model comes with Dana 44 axles, electric rear locking differential, Bilstein high-performance shocks, skid plates and BFGoodrich Rugged Trail P265/75R16 tires. It also boasts fog lamps, chrome mirrors and door handles, a bed extender (the better to accommodate motorcycles), special RMZ-4 seat material with red stitching, chrome instrument cluster and vent trim, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

On the safety front, all Equators come with dual-stage front airbags with front seatbelt and occupant classification sensors, front-seat side airbags and side curtain bags front and rear, plus a tire pressure monitoring system. Extended Cab and Crew Cab models provide three-point seatbelts for all rear-seat occupants, including the center position.

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