- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

At first glance, Suzuki’s 2007 SX4 looks like just another five-door hatchback economy car with a debut that coincides conveniently with high fuel prices and poignant environmental concerns. An entire crop of these “B-segment” vehicles has flooded the marketplace this year, including the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit and Kia Rio5.

Customers demand fuel economy and reliability, primarily, in their point A to point B transportation. Extra girth and unnecessary frills have been marginalized, because many consumers’ personal economies no longer warrant them.

The abundance of new vehicles in the marketplace has bred some healthy competition, however, as B-segment buyers demand equipment and capabilities formerly not associated with the entry level. Suzuki realized the real possibility of being obscured by the more powerful players, namely Honda, Nissan and Toyota, and has equipped its SX4 appropriately.

Most notably, Suzuki’s SX4, or “Sport Crossover for Four seasons,” arrives standard with all-wheel-drive capability for a mere $15,594.

That low MSRP positions the SX4 as the most inexpensive 4WD vehicle sold in the United States, according to Suzuki. Getting into an AWD Dodge Caliber sets you back $19,425, while a Subaru Impreza 2.5i Sport Wagon begins at $18,295, both not including destination charges.

Granted, both of these “competitors” are larger, more powerful are arguably much better executed, but the AWD SX4 remains unparalleled at its price point. In fact, Suzuki seems to have discovered a black hole along the automotive spectrum of which no manufacturer has taken advantage yet.

Skeptics might wonder about the sophistication of a $15K AWD economy car. To those doubters, Suzuki offers a four-wheel-drive system with unprecedented abilities. The three-mode system uses electronic solenoids to engage the rear axle, depending on the type of AWD traction required.

Auto mode allows up to 50 percent of available torque to reach the back wheels when needed, but concentrates torque up front when no slippage is detected. An AWD Lock system keeps the vehicle in all-wheel-drive and torque split at 50:50, for use in snow and mud. Finally, FWD Lock fully disengages the rear axle, allowing for the best fuel economy on dry surfaces. No other AWD system offers the attribute of locking in FWD.

Effective all-wheel-drive requires an adequate powertrain and, again, Suzuki does not disappoint. The 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine delivers a respectable 143 horsepower and 136 foot-pounds of torque.

Many vehicles with which SX4 competes only muster between 105 and 120 horsepower and 103 to 125 foot-pounds of torque, although the aforementioned Caliber and Impreza yield 172 and 175 horsepower, respectively. SX4 weighs in between 2,800 and 2,877 pounds, depending on the equipment/trim level.

SX4’s top mileage figure of 30 highway miles per gallon, when the $1,000 four-speed automatic transmission is optioned, does not quite measure up to the mid-30s mpg rating that many customers will expect. The standard five-speed manual transmission yields economy of 29 highway mpg, and both gearboxes return 24 city mpg, according to EPA estimates.

Suzuki offers two well-equipped SX4 trim models. Base models include the five-speed manual transmission, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, seat-mounted front side impact air bags, curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, power windows/locks/mirrors, keyless entry, air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, a roof rack, single-CD four-speaker audio system and 60/40 split rear seats. And, of course, all-wheel-drive. Not bad for $15,594.

The $16,994 Sport model adds the Electronic Stability Program that includes traction control, SmartPass keyless entry and starting, automatic climate control, a nine-speaker six-CD audio system with subwoofer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with integrated audio controls, heated mirrors, front fog lights, aluminum roof rails and cruise control. Again, the four-speed automatic transmission adds $1,000, but Sport models just make sense with manual transmissions.

What’s interesting is that traditional sporty features such as retuned suspension components and larger wheels/tires have not been applied.

Base model customers seeking a bit more equipment may opt for the $300 Convenience Package, which adds cruise control to the leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls.

Suzuki’s styling department combined familiar industry attributes into the SX4’s exterior sheet metal. The headlights fall back into the front fenders, grille splits into two distinct units, wheel wells flare, rear side windows wrap around unbroken into the rear windscreen and taillights split between red and stylish clear sections.

The overall stance is upright and well poised, thanks to the AWD system. A large triangular window ahead of driver and front passenger glass creates better sight lines but yields a somewhat unsightly styling kink between the doors and front fenders.

The black cloth interior appears businesslike and well organized. Three large HVAC knobs reside below the audio system in the center stack. A three-spoke steering wheel frames a prominent center-mounted speedometer and left-side placed tachometer. When optioned, the steering wheel audio controls appear integrally attached and not just tacked on. The 60/40 split rear seats fold down, but not flat into the floor.

Selling the SX4 might require that Suzuki’s marketers and dealers convince customers that all-wheel-drive is necessary, at any price point. While it’s unlikely that Caliber or Impreza customers will be cross-shopping the SX4, those buyers considering the Versa, Fit or Rio5 may also venture into Suzuki showrooms. Replacing the discontinued Aerio SX wagon, the five-door SX4 will be joined by a sedan version next year.

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