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Adding some more “sport” to a Suzuki Sidekick Sport

How To: Installing a 2.3 Aerio Engine Into A Sidekick Sport

By: Matt Verley, Photography: Matt Verley

Seaside, OR – Over the last 20 years, I have owned at least a dozen Samurais, several Sidekicks and Trackers, and a couple of Vitara and Grand Vitara.  About 3 years ago, I stumbled across a 1996 Sidekick Sport with a blown engine in my local classifieds.  Though I had never owned a Sport, I knew a little about the sub model and I knew where an “almost new” replacement 1.8L engine was located so I called the seller, made the deal, and ran into town with my truck and trailer.  The following weekend, I had the replacement 1.8L engine under the hood and running, and the Sport turned into a daily driver for my wife for the next 3 years.

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Earlier this year, I came across a deal on a 2006 Grand Vitara.  My wife took it for a test drive and the rest is history; she had a new daily driver, and the Sport moved down to the parking lot by my shop.  I started driving the Sport to some off-road trips; mostly mild 4×4 trails, fire roads, and desert-type trails.  While the 1.8L engine offered a good horsepower upgrade from either of the 1.6’s, it lacked that low end “grunt” I like in my off-road vehicles.  It made good power above 4500 RPM and high speed freeway/highway performance was good, but lower RPM performance was…disappointing.  I began searching for a way to add some extra horsepower; I considered forced induction, engine modifications, complete engine swaps, and more.  Then I came across the solution:  A J23 2.3L engine swap from a 2004-2007 Suzuki Aerio.  The 1.8L is rated at around 118HP (depending on the source; I found a few different numbers) and the 2.3L is rated at around 158HP (again, depending on the source).  But the peak HP numbers don’t tell the entire story; it is where the engine develops the power that was more important to me.  I was really after more power at lower RPM, and the 2.3L delivers a significant gain in this area.

I did the normal forum and google research; I found conflicting information about which flywheels would work, whether or not the bell housing pattern was the same, if the 1.8’s ECU would work or if I needed to swap to the 2.3 ECU, if the crankshaft position sensor reluctor wheel had the same number of teeth, if the cam position sensor was the same, etc.  Since the 1.8 and 2.3 are both from the same “J” series, I was hopeful that the swap would be relatively easy.  I decided there was only one way to find out for sure, so I bought a running 2004 Aerio and brought it home.

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I spent an entire weekend stripping the Aerio of its parts; the engine and transaxle came out from underneath the vehicle with relative ease, but the removal of the wiring harness from behind the dash proved to be very time consuming.  I was planning on parting out the Aerio, but the first person to come for parts ended up purchasing the entire vehicle to rebuild his wrecked Aerio.  When it was all over, I ended up with a low-mile engine, wiring harness, ECU, and most of the under hood parts for just a few hundred $$.

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I pulled the 1.8 out of the Sidekick and put both engines side by side to determine what needed to be swapped over.  Below is a list of items that I ended up with on the 2.3:

  • 1.8L flywheel and clutch
  • 1.8L coolant tube and cast coolant head adapter and associated sensors
  • 1.8L driver and passenger side engine mounts
  • 1.8L exhaust manifold
  • 1.8L A/C pump and mounting bracket (the 2.3L one is different but would work fine; I didn’t want to change it because I left the AC system intact on the sidekick with the pump still connected to the lines and didn’t want to have to re-charge the system. The 1.8L bracket also has provisions for a mechanical fan; I’m running electric so that didn’t matter to me)
  • 1.8L water pump (the 2.3’s water pump looks identical, but I had replaced the 1.8’s about a year earlier so I decided to use it)
  • 2.3L crankshaft pulley (If I was running the mechanical fan I would need to run the 1.8 pulley)
  • 1.8L power steering pump and brackets
  • 1.8L alternator and brackets
  • 1.8L coolant manifold and lift eye
  • 1.8L intake manifold and all associated sensors
  • 1.8L engine wiring harness
  • 1.8L coil packs
  • 2.3L fuel injectors, fuel pressure regulator, fuel rail, and injector harness
  • 2.3L crankshaft position sensor
  • 2.3L camshaft position sensor
  • 1.8L oil pan
  • 1.8L oil pickup tube

While I had the engine on the stand, I took the time to replace both front and rear crankshaft seals.  Once all of the accessories were swapped onto the 2.3L engine, installation was simple, straightforward, and fast.  After just a couple of hours I had the engine in place, wiring all plugged in, and fuel and exhaust plumbed.  I was ready to turn the key!  After just a couple of seconds of cranking, the engine fired right up and settled into a steady idle.  I didn’t run it for long because I didn’t have the radiator in place and I didn’t want to cause hot spots in the head or cylinder walls.  But, it was enough to tell me that it was going to run!

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After a few more hours of wrench turning, I had the radiator installed and everything under the hood completely buttoned up and ready for a test drive.  The power increase was very noticeable; the 2.3L makes considerably more power at all RPM but the most notable difference was at the lower RPMs.  I did some full-throttle pulls from 0-80 MPH to listen for any pinging or detonation, but I was unable to detect any issues.  After about 40 miles of rural highway and gravel road driving, I went to an undisclosed location for some more aggressive driving.  I managed to hit the 100 MPH mark on flat ground; a speed that was previously unattainable with the 1.8L.  This speed is impressive, considering the 5” lift and 32” tires.

I had pulled the 2.3L ECU and wiring harness knowing that I might need to swap it into the Sidekick to get the new engine to run properly, but the 1.8 ECU seems to make the 2.3L engine run just fine.  With that being said, there is probably a bit of power hiding in the 2.3L ECU; the 1.8 doesn’t make use of a knock sensor, so I’m guessing that the 2.3L ECU can tighten up the AFR and timing curves a bit.  Its fuel map is probably better suited to the 2.3L as well.  But, while I’m certain there is a little bit of power to be gained by swapping to the 2.3L ECU, the gains may not be worth the effort involved.

Since completing the swap, I have driven the Sidekick for a little over 500 miles.  This includes a mix of freeway, highway, gravel, deep snow, and one “off-road rescue” run.  The extra power is a welcome change; the passing lane is now a useful lane for the Sidekick, and uphill passes are no longer wishful thinking!  While the Sport is certainly no drag racer, this engine brings it into the “adequately powered” category.  I have filled the fuel tank 3 times and am seeing economy numbers consistent with what I would expect from the 1.8 in the same types of driving.   I am very happy with the results; in fact, I regret not completing this project sooner!

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During the swap, I set up the cameras and filmed the entire process.  I put together a shortened video here, complete with a test drive at the end of the video:

 

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15 comments

  1. Are the intake and exhaust ports on the head significantly larger on the 2.3? Did you do any porting to match the 1.8 intake and exhaust to the 2.3 head?

    • Matt Verley

      No difference; they were an exact match.

      • Thanks. My 98 Sport is in line for the conversion now. I am excited to find an engine swap for the Sport that is basically a bolt in swap; no harness, no ECU, no cutting or welding, no adapters. Just got a 2004 Aerio motor for it and I am prepping it for the swap in the next few months. Even though the Aerio motor only had 51K miles it is a bit of a leap of faith that it will run as well as the 140K mile 1.8 that’s in the truck now since I don’t know how well it was cared for. Fingers crossed…

  2. No check engine light ? will pass smog tests ?

    • Matt

      No check engine light. I do not need to pass smog in my location, however I am certain that it would pass. The ECU still shows a 1.8L displacement. The only way that an inspector would notice the swap is if he ran the casting numbers on the engine block.

  3. Love the write up. I am doing a similar swap on my 2000 tracker 2.0l with an 07 Aerio 2.3l. Got it all swapped but having trouble getting it to fire. The cam position sensor on the two are different plugs so I used the one from the 2.0l. The cam position sensors were the same plug on yours.? It pops and backfires like a timing issue, so I think my issue is with the cam position sensor. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    • Matt

      Yes, the plugs matched on mine, so I left the Aerio one in place. I do know that the ECU used the cam sensor for injector and spark timing, and does not use the crank position sensor. So, I think you are on the correct track. That’s just a flat keyed slot in the cam, correct? If it isn’t offset, is it possible to get it 180 degrees off?

      • Yeah it’s just a flat keyed slot in the cam. I thought of the 180 out and tried both ways. I think I found my problem though. The 2.0l uses a 6 tooth reluctor on the crank where I believe the 2.3 uses a multi tooth one. I need to figure out that patter and see if I can get it to work. Might be making the jump to Megasquirt sooner than I thought.

        • Matt

          I would be surprised if this was the problem. It is my understanding that that crank position sensor is only used for misfire detection on the J series engines. It will throw a check engine light if the crank position sensor is unplugged, but the engine will still run fine. Did you happen to count the teeth on both engines? I found the same info during my research, but discovered that both the 1.8 and 2.3 had the same number of teeth. I seems unlikely that the 2.0 would be different.

  4. Hi, loved the info, just a few questions, I have a 97 sport JLX with the 1.8 automatic, and same as you i find it really lacks the low rpm power, I cant really find any easy performance/power/milage upgrades for it besides a cold air intake and exhaust upgrade (not sure how much those will help), with this swap you did, did you have to do any cutting or re-shaping to make it fit? Did it bolt up to the 1.8 tranny? My sidekick has about 200,000km on it, and the timing chain guides are getting worn and loud so that may be causing a bit of a power loss, just dont have alot of time or money to throw at fixing or rebuilding if i can viably do a swap and get better reliability, power, and milage.

    • Matthew Verley

      I did have to change basically everything that bolts onto the long block; pulleys, manifolds, etc. Also the oil pan and oil pump pickup tube, dipstick, etc. But, it is basically a bolt-in swap. No adapters or custom parts were needed. I’m not sure if there are any significant differences between years, and I’ve HEARD (can’t verify that) JDM blocks are different. But, as long as you go with a domestic donor Aerio, it should all bolt in.

  5. Hi Mat
    Thank you for this article and the video.
    I am about to embark on an almost exact swap with the exception of an automatic vehicle.
    I purchased a 97 sidekick sport with a turned con rod bearing and rather than simply replacing the 1.8l I decided to go with the Aerio 2.3. I want to keep it as simple as possible and your video has given me the confidence to go for it.
    Looking foreword to off-roading in the Arizona desert.

    • How has the long term reliability been? Have you had any issues related to the swap that could possibly be solved at the time of the swap?

      • Matthew Verley

        No issues to date; I have taken this vehicle on several trips, including a 1000+ mile backcountry trip through Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. Along that trip I pushed it with some 90+ MPH extended drives with zero problems. A few things to note: The 2.3L produces more heat than the 1.8L does; if you’re running electric fans they should be really good fans. Also, the stock clutch has a hard time holding the extra power from the 2.3L. I’m searching for a suitable upgrade right now.

  6. Eric Bewley

    Great article! Thanks for posting…

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