- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

These days, all the action in the all-wheel-drive sector is centered on crossovers. Under this banner, you’ll find everything from pure cars to total trucks. Automakers constantly fiddle with the formula to see what mix nets the most sales.

Count the Suzuki SX-4 on the small, car-based side of that continuum, in the section marked “economy.” It’s not a bad place to be; there’s always a market for inexpensive cars. And, low-priced models with all-wheel drive particularly perk up the ears of those who live in snow belt states

Unlike SUVs, the goal with crossovers is all-weather driving, not off-road travel. Suzuki’s AWD system has three operating modes. Set the console-mounted switch to 2WD for front-wheel drive and maximum fuel economy. In AWD automatic mode, up to 50 percent of available engine power will be channeled to the rear wheels, as needed, to maintain traction. Finally, in AWD lock mode, 30 percent to 50 percent of the engine’s torque is pushed to the rear tires, at speeds up to 36 mph.

Above that level, the system shifts to AWD auto mode. The system works as advertised, making it easier to go in snow — especially if you upgrade to a set of four snow tires. Standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS make stopping in the slop less eventful, too.

Those who step up to the Xsport trim level on SXT ($16,399) also gain an electronic stability program with traction control. Taken together, it’s a lot of traction defenses for combating winter roads, for not a lot of money.

SX4 is based on a car platform, not a truck chassis. With its lower center of gravity and tidy dimensions, the Suzuki crossover has a nimble feel and a “park-it-anywhere” attitude. One engine and two transmissions are offered. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder is linked to a five-speed manual transmission, or available four-speed automatic.

Interestingly, even though the optional automatic has only four gears, it will yield better gas mileage than the five-speed manual. EPA estimates that an SX4 with manual transmission will get 23 miles per gallon city, 28 on the highway, while the automatic is rated at 24/30.

Inside, the layout of switch gear is all easy to reach and simple to operate. The Suzuki’s turn-signal indicator is so quiet that it’s possible to inadvertently leave it on. This happened to me on a recent trip through New York City. Fortunately, the locals were more than happy to remind me to shut the signal off, often doing so with colorful expressions and gestures.

Minimum cargo capacity is a modest 9.5 cubic feet, but expands to as much as 22 cubic feet, depending on how many of the split rear seats you choose to fold/tumble forward. Lift-over height is low and the rear gate swings high.

Sooner or later, any discussion of the compact, SX4 gets back to the window sticker. At $14,999, it’s the lowest priced vehicle available with all-wheel drive. Though not as large or as refined as some crossovers, it wraps a lot of fun, features and function into a small package, with a highly affordable price. With this Suzuki crossover, the bottom line really is the bottom line.

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