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Suzuki adds a pickup truck

They’ve been hauling around their Suzuki dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles in other people’s pickup trucks for years. Not anymore.

Starting this week, the 2 million U.S. owners of Suzuki’s bikes, motorcycles and ATVs can get a Suzuki-branded pickup truck, too. The 2009 Suzuki Equator is a rebadged version of Nissan’s long-running Frontier compact pickup truck. In fact, the Equator and Frontier are built at the same Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant.

Available with four- or six-cylinder engine, in two- and four-wheel drive and in Extended Cab and Crew Cab body styles, the Equator is a competent truck with a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $17,995 for a base, 152-horsepower, four-cylinder-powered Extended Cab 4X2 model with five-speed manual transmission.

This is less than the $18,240 starting retail price of the base, 2009 Nissan Frontier King Cab 4X2 with manual transmission and same 152-horsepower, four-cylinder engine as the Equator. It’s also less than the $19,995 starting retail price for a base, 2009 Toyota Tacoma Access Cab 4X2 model with 159-horsepower four-cylinder engine.

But customers who are serious truck shoppers — and not necessarily Suzuki loyalists — won’t stop there.

They’ll know that the Tacoma has a bargain-priced Regular Cab model that starts at $15,915, including MSRP and destination charge. And they’ll figure out that Nissan offers a few more items for the Frontier than Suzuki does on the Equator. For example, the Frontier is offered with both five-speed and six-speed manual transmissions, while the only manual in the Equator is a five-speed.

But all the good parts of the Frontier are there in the Equator, right down to the thick, turn signal stalks and nicely arranged gauges and controls.

In fact, if someone rode in the Equator without seeing the bold Suzuki grille with the huge “S” in the front, he might assume he’s in a Frontier. The ride is truckish, as the vehicle and passengers bounce over road bumps and bound over off-road trails.

With a good, minimum ground clearance of 7.6 inches in the 4X2 models, passengers ride well above things, clearing most rocks, small logs and other obstacles on the trail with ease.

In 4X4 Equators, the minimum ground clearance grows to 8.6 inches — perfect for getting Suzuki ATVs out to the woods.

The test Equator, a Crew Cab Sport 4X2, had mainstream steering, neither sporty-precise nor loose-wandering. I also liked the feel of the thick steering wheel.

The Sport model has upgraded, 18-inch tires from BF Goodrich, and road, wind and engine noise came through enough that I adjusted the radio volume regularly. There’s evidently not a lot of sound insulation.

I enjoyed the look and feel of the seats in the test Equator. They had a spongy feel with a bit of cushion, and they were covered with dark gray upholstery that had a sporty-looking, lighter gray mesh over it.

There’s good room in front — 42.4 inches of legroom and some 40 inches of headroom.

Back seats in the Extended Cab, as expected, offer child-size legroom of 25.4 inches. The Extended Cab has two regular-sized, front-hinged doors paired with small, rear-hinged panels.

The roomier interior came in the Equator Crew Cab test truck which had four, front-hinged doors. While the back-seat cushion was short, coming just to my thigh, there was a more commendable 33.6 inches of legroom back there.

Note that the passenger compartment of either body style of Equator offers the same headroom for back-seat riders — just over 38 inches.

Inside and out, there’s a capable sense to the Equator. Because Nissan installs a bed liner as standard equipment in each Frontier, the Equators get it, too. So there’s less chance of scratching the metal bed when loading and unloading those Suzuki dirt bikes. And if you need to maximize the room in the pickup bed, a bed extender is offered.

There are also two lengths of pickup bed — 5 feet and 6 feet.

The test Equator had the only engine available for the Crew Cab. It’s the 4-liter, double overhead cam V-6 from Nissan that delivers a strong 261 horsepower and 281 foot-pounds of torque.

In the tester, power from this engine thrust the Equator into traffic with gusto and started some wheel chirp until the limited slip electronic traction control took over. Shifts were smooth with the five-speed automatic transmission.

But fuel economy isn’t the best, rating just 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 20 mpg on the highway.

This is the same as the Frontier but isn’t much better than some larger pickup trucks.

The better fuel mileage — 19/23 mpg — comes with a base Equator 4X2 with 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual. But the four cylinder is available only in the Extended Cab.

There is some debate about whether the Equator and its sibling Frontier are compact pickup trucks, particularly since the Crew Cabs stretch some 17 feet in length, bumper to bumper.

The top Equator — Crew Cab 4X4 — weighs nearly 4,500 pounds, which rivals the weight of some full-size trucks. But the impressive capability is there, too. Top payload for the Equator is 1,471 pounds, while towing capacity is 6,500 pounds.

Most safety equipment is standard, including curtain air bags and traction control. But there was no head restraint for the middle person in the back seat of the Crew Cab, and stability control comes with the Sport trim package.