One of the nice things about being an automotive journalist is that every once in a while, a car comes along that catches you off guard. All too often, those in the business of writing about cars already know what to expect before they jump into one; we know a Toyota is going to be well-made but bland, a Buick is going to be quiet but ill-suited for carving S-turns, and a Porsche is going to be a blast to drive.
So when something comes along and surprises an automotive journalist, we tend to really sit up and take notice. Case in point: the Suzuki SX4. Now, while motorcycle enthusiasts might get a warm feeling down below at the name “Suzuki,” for car guys, the company is about as sexy as Rosie O’Donnell.
That’s not to say the SX4, introduced back in 2006, is particularly good looking; the front end is reminiscent of a Toyota Corolla, the cabin looks a little tall for the car’s size, and the rear end is utterly forgettable. But compared to the rest of the compact car class, it’s certainly not unpleasant to look at – its looks are unlikely to be the deciding factor in either direction.
The lineup consists of two models: a sedan and a “crossover,” which in a sane world would simply be called a station wagon. The sedan serves as the bottom of the lineup, starting at at a mere $13, 299. For that, thrifty consumers get a 143-horsepower 2.0 liter inline four-cylinder engine – the same engine that powers the rest of the SX4 line – and a five-speed manual transmission, along with 15″ wheels, folding rear seats, anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights, and a tire pressure monitoring system. Climate control is of the old-fashioned variety – crank down those manual windows, ’cause there’s no AC here. And you’d better like the sound of your own voice, as the only source of music comes from your larynx – there’s no radio, either.
Step up to the LE sedan, and for $14,689, you can have your AC, your 4-speaker CD stereo, and your power windows and locks, as well as a four-speed automatic transmission if you want it. There’s also a “Popular Package” for the LE, presumably popular among the beancounters who split it off as a way to save some cash; for $15,139, it adds a leather steering wheel with stereo controls, a keyless entry system, and “performance-tuned” shocks that lower your ride hight a whopping 1 centimeter (.39 inches for the Imperial among us).
From there, there’s a $600 leap up to the Sport trim level ($15,739), but for the money, it actually comes with a couple surprising niceties. The car’s shoes get pumped up to 17″ tires and alloy wheels, rear disc brakes get swapped for the crappier drums, and the car receives a built-in navigation system. Unlike most manufacturer systems, the Suzuki’s unit is removeable – you can take it out if you’re worried about it being stolen, or need a guide while wandering the roads like David Banner.
Next up the sedan ladder is the Technology Package, which adds fog lamps, Bluetooth, real-time traffic updates for the nav system, and cruise control for $16,539. Finally, the top of the lineup is occupied by the Touring Package, retailing at $18,639. To justify the extra two grand, the pack throws in automatic climate control, a Keyless Go-like system that allows the car to be unlocked and started using a radio transmitter, a 9-speaker satellite-radio capable stereo, electronic stability control, and a mandatory 4-speed automatic transmission.
But the far more interesting version of the SX4 is the crossover. With its hatch back and half-inch increase in ground clearance, this little wagon (which really looks more like a slightly bloated 5-door VW Rabbit than a longtail Chevy Caprice) holds an edge of convenience over its sedan brother. Besides the exterior, the biggest difference between 4- and 5-door SX4 lies deep beneath the floor, where the crossover’s optional all-wheel-drive system lies. Unlike most AWD systems on the market, which are always active, the Suzuki has three modes. On dry roads, drivers can leave the car in 2WD mode and let the front wheels pull the car. (Ostensibly, this is to save gas, but in reality the added weight of 4WD systems tends to be what degrades fuel economy, not the number of wheels being driven.) AWD mode sends 95 percent or so of power to the front axle until it senses slippage, at which point it can distribute up to half the power to the stern wheels. Finally, for really slippery work, the driver can lock the axles, splitting power evenly between them.
The SX4’s pricing and features tend to line up approximately with the Sport trim levels of the sedan. The base crossover, at $15,939, gives you the handy GPS (though strangely, only on front-wheel-drive models), the 4-speaker stereo, power windows/mirrors/locks, and keyless entry, among the other basics. The Technology Package ($16,689) throws on the leather steering wheel, cruise control and the GPS on AWD models; Bluetooth and real-time traffic also come with it. Finally, upgrading to the Touring Package ($18,539) throws in just about everything the average Joe Plumber (too dated already? Eh, screw it.) would want: automatic climate control, complete keyless access with the radio transmitter, heated mirrors and seats, and 9-speaker stereo. All Crossovers come with 16″ wheels.
I recently had a brief chance to drive the SX4, and while I wasn’t able to do anything possibly close to exploring the limits of its performance, it performed quite nicely on an everyday driving loop of frosted Vermont roads. The AWD kicked in on the snowy parking lots but was mostly innocuous on dry roads; there was an unusual grinding sound on turns that seemed to come from the rear axle, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt before condemning that as a malfunction or design failure. (Just be sure to listen up for it yourself, should you take one for a test drive.) I can vouch quite nicely for the seat heaters, however.
Otherwise, the experience was pretty much unexceptional – which is a pretty remarkable feat for Suzuki. Nothing in the car screamed “cheap,” even if it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t a Bimmer inside. Plus, Suzuki is vouching for their cars with a massive warranty: 7 years/100K miles on the powertrain, with bumper-to-bumper for 3 years or 36,000 miles. Free roadside assistance is available, 24/7, during that time (or distance), as well.
As for performance, not many people seem to have tested the SX4 with their stopwatches; The Truth About Cars got one from 0 to 60 in 8.3 seconds, which sounds around right. Fuel economy in the city ranges from 20 to 23 miles per gallon in the city, and 28 to 31 on the highway; the heavier AWD crossover tends towards the bottom of those numbers, but it’s still pretty good for what it is.
So, what’s the ruling on the field? From here, it looks like Suzuki is arriving about where Hyundai was 10 years ago in this country – finally starting to make products worthy of a second look from bargain-hungry consumers. (Indeed, Hyundai also hooked customers in with an appealing warranty to back up their vehicles as a show of their reliability.) The SX4 seems to be a good little car, especially in crossover form. Offering all-wheel-drive in a reliable, fuel-efficient package for $16,000 or so sounds awful good these days, and the value only increases at higher option levels. The crossover would probably make a great car for anyone fitting that description – be it empty nesters, young families or teenagers with concerned parents.
(Also, I hear Suzuki is offering a $750 college student discount; however, I haven’t been able to find anything more recent than 2007 on it. For now, just take it with a grain of salt, and be sure to ask about it if you’re considering one.)
Grades: Sedan: B-; Crossover: A-