CARLSBAD, CA – The triangular turn/headlamps on the all-new ’07 XL7 cross/utility vehicle signal the efforts by Suzuki Motor Corp. to create something distinctive.

Suzuki struggled to create a midsize CUV that belies the fact it starts life riding on a General Motors Corp. platform.

The XL7 shares GM’s Global Compact Crossover (Theta) Architecture with the Saturn Vue, Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent and is assembled alongside the Equinox and Torrent in a GM-Suzuki joint venture plant known as CAMI International Inc. in Ingersoll, Ont., Canada.

For the ’07 XL7, Suzuki abandons its 5-passenger body-on-frame predecessor for a 7-passenger CUV using unibody construction.

It is the largest and most-powerful vehicle the Japanese small-car specialist has made to date and is Suzuki’s first foray into the hot and expanding midsize CUV market.

In comparison with GM’s 5-passenger variants, the XL7 chassis has been stretched 9 ins. (23 cm) to accommodate the third row of seats. It also required modification of the rear suspension to handle the greater load.

The XL7, with a 112.4-in. (285-cm) wheelbase, is longer than the Toyota Highlander (106.9 ins. [272 cm]) and Honda Pilot (106.3 ins. [270 cm]).

GM can use the stretched 3-row design, Suzuki executives say. But under an agreement between the two auto makers, GM would have to change the styling completely to protect the exclusivity of Suzuki’s design.

With little to suggest GM has any such intentions, the XL7 may retain the distinction – one of many the new CUV brings to the party to make up for being a latecomer.

Suzuki Chief Engineer Koji Yamada admits it was a challenge to make a standout product; a task made harder by the fact it follows its GM brethren to market.

But Suzuki was determined to create its own front-wheel-drive CUV with available all-wheel drive, designed specifically for the North American market. The styling direction debuted as Concept X at the 2005 North American International Auto Show.

Underpinnings aside, the XL7 is an original Suzuki design, and all body panels are unique, as is the powertrain, the auto maker insists.

Less than 40% of the XL7 is shared with the GM trio, and the Suzuki boasts more than 650 unique parts, the trickiest being the unique headlamps that are becoming the brand’s signature. The triangular lights bookend the 3-bar front grille and draw attention to the muscular wheel arches.

The more aggressive look is befitting this little beast, powered by a GM-designed but Suzuki-built “high-feature” 3.6L DOHC V-6 pumping out 252 hp at 6,500 rpm and 243 lb.-ft. (329 Nm) of torque at 2,300 rpm.

That makes it more powerful than the outgoing XL7 as well as the GM triplets and many of its competitors, including the Pilot and Mazda CX7. However, it will not best the new 3.5L DOHC V-6 powering the Ford Edge. And GM will put a version of the 3.6L in the new Saturn Outlook/GMC Acadia that may prove faster off the mark.

Fuel economy numbers for the XL7 are 18/24 mpg (13/9.8 L/100 km) city and highway with FWD, dropping 1 mpg with AWD. That is better than the fuel economy of the outgoing XL7 with a 185-hp 2.7L V-6.

The ride is decent, with independent MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link independent rear suspension. The 7-passenger model has a load-leveling suspension.

Shifting is smooth with a 5-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode that operates better than many on the market. Tip-in and acceleration are immediate.

Electronically controlled, on-demand AWD is available.

For stopping power, the rear brakes are disc. GM also switched to disc from drum brakes on its CUVs for ’07.

Towing capacity is 3,500 lbs. (1,588 kg), not meant for a large boat but perfect for hauling a Suzuki motorcycle or all-terrain vehicle – wink, wink. Suzuki points out only 15% of vehicles in this category are asked to tow at all.

Safety-wise, the XL7 offers standard 4-wheel antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, electronic stability control, rollover sensing and a reinforced safety cage and front and rear crumple zones. Side-curtain airbags are standard for all three rows of seating.

Suzuki’s desire to position its new CUV as more modern and sophisticated extends to the interior, with admirable attempts to mask a standard GM interior layout and plastic expanses with creative use of fabrics and materials including wood, satin nickel appliqués, chrome accents and low-gloss black matte surfaces.

Red backlit controls set the mood, and gauges are simple and intuitive – a big improvement on some of the diminutive knobs and readouts of the old CUV. Suzuki shows its modern bent with the inclusion of an iPod jack.

Passengers can appreciate segment-leading spaciousness in the second and third rows and a 6-in. (15-cm) deep footwell. The second and third rows and front passenger seat all fold flat, creating an impressive cargo hold. The reclining 60-40 split second-row seat tumbles and folds, while the third-row seat folds flat into the floor. The 3-row model features storage under the cargo floor.

The XL7 goes on sale Nov. 1 with a starting price of $22,899 for a 5-passenger base model (there are three trim levels) and $24,250 for a base 3-row. Pricing does not include $635 destination charges.

The Luxury version begins at $24,599 and the top-of-the-line Limited goes for $27,949, adding such amenities as DVD/navigation system (a first for Suzuki) and upgraded audio, including XM Satellite radio, rear spoiler, moonroof and fog lamps.

A third row can be added to the base model for $1,350, and AWD adds $1,600.

A new FWD XL7 represents a cost increase of about $900 over the old XL7, or $1,300 more for the new AWD model.

Affordability is a Suzuki hallmark, and the auto maker claims its base XL7 is thousands less than the Toyota Highlander, Pilot and even Hyundai-brand competitors.

Of the 60,000 XL7s to be built annually, 50,000 are earmarked for the U.S. The rest are for Canada and export to Latin America. There are no plans to sell the CUV in Europe.

apriddle@wardsauto.com