- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

offers AWD as standard

Suzuki finds itself wedged between higher-profile Japanese brands such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan, and the expanding Korean brands Hyundai and Kia. Even Subaru has managed to carve out a profitable niche built on the shoulders of its Outback franchise.

While it’s easy to overlook Suzuki in this mob of Asian overachievers, it continues to evolve as a brand with ever-better products. Its newest offering, the SX4, is arguably the best car it has built to date. Bringing some serious value to the subcompact segment, the all-new SX4 is Suzuki speak for Sport Crossover for Four seasons. Replacing the Aerio SX in the 2007 lineup, it enters uncharted subcompact waters by offering standard all-wheel drive.

With the base version costing $15,594, the SX4 is the least expensive four-wheel-drive vehicle on the market. An upgraded Sport trim level is also available at $16,994. Both derive power from a 143-horsepower 2.0-liter four.

Shuffling engine output to the front or all four wheels is a five-speed manual transmission. The gearbox has a decent feel for this price range — neither stiff nor noticeably notchy. Anyone willing to pony up an extra $1,000 can replace the manual transmission with a four-speed automatic.

Thanks to the extra weight the AWD system adds, fuel economy suffers a bit when compared to others in the segment.

The Environmental Protection Agency rates versions with the five-speed at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. Opting for the automatic actually buys better mileage at 24 mpg and 30 mpg respectively.

Designed for foul-weather handling rather than off-road excursions, this three-mode AWD system is monitored by a switch on the center console. In the 2WD position all power is concentrated on the front wheels. In Auto mode, the system can send up to 50 percent of power to the rear wheels if it senses some front-wheel slippage.

Engineered for mud and snow, the Lock mode sends 30 to 50 percent of power to the rear wheels full time at speeds below 36 mph. Once the speed exceeds 36 mph, the system reverts back to Auto mode.

MacPherson struts, coil springs and hydraulic shocks up front with a Torsion beam live axle and coil springs in the rear make up the core of SX4’s suspension. Anti-roll bars fore and aft increase stability and control. Sixteen-inch wheels and rubber front the disc brakes at each corner, supervised by an antilock system. All SX4’s have electronic brakeforce distribution as part of the antilock package; however, elevating the Sport trim to nearly must-have status is the addition of electronic stability control and traction control.

A better-than-expected level of ride quality combined with solid handling make this small Suzuki a pleasure to drive. Whether negotiating tight quarters in crowded parking lots or blasting up the highway, it is settled and well mannered. Responsive steering enhances overall control.

With its bobbed tail and slightly wedgelike profile, this five-door hatchback looks like it’s fun to drive. There is nothing groundbreaking about its styling, but the clean lines and 16-inch wheels somewhat confuse the SX4’s lineage. A neighbor was surprised to learn that my test SX4 was a Suzuki.

The interior also offers its share of pleasant surprises. While the two-toned cabin won’t be mistaken for that of a luxury import, it is tidy and carefully assembled.

There is plenty of plastic at work, but Suzuki has made an effort to minimize its impact by using a variety of textures and adding some brushed aluminum-looking accents.

All of the well-placed controls are simple to use. The seats offer a decent amount of comfort and support.

Remarkably roomy, the interior offers more than 41 inches of front-seat and nearly 36 inches of rear-seat legroom. The 60/40 split rear seat folds down and tumbles forward. There is 16.2 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat in place and 54.3 cubic feet when the rear seat is tumbled forward.

Both trim levels come with front-seat side-impact air bags in addition to the front/rear side curtain air bags.

Remote keyless entry, power accessories, air conditioning, tire-pressure monitor and a tilt steering wheel are standard across the board. A $300 Convenience Package adds cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls to the base car.

In addition to stability control, the $1,400 premium required for the Sport upgrade includes a nine-speaker audio system in place of the base model’s four-speaker system. Both have a CD player with MP3 capability.

The Sport system has a six-disc changer. The Sport package also includes automatic climate control, heated outboard mirrors, fog lamps and the features in the Convenience Package.

Generously equipped, well-screwed together, roomy and fun to drive, the all-wheel-drive SX4 has earned a place at the table of the subcompact elite.

It may not enjoy the cachet of the Toyota or Honda name, but it is sufficiently good to enhance the stature of the Suzuki brand.

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