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The Suzuki SX4 is an all-new subcompact car that comes standard with all-wheel drive. Suzuki says SX4 stands for (S)port (X)-over for (4) seasons. We found these were all good reasons to like this car.
The SX4 is indeed reasonably sporty, when equipped with a manual transmission. It offers versatility and even looks like a stylish mini-SUV. We'd classify it as cute. Finally, it's good for all seasons as it comes standard with an effective all-wheel-drive system.
A number of all-new models brings excitement to the subcompact segment. The Suzuki SX4 competes directly with the new Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, and Chevrolet Aveo. Yet the SX4 comes with all-wheel drive and it looks, drives and feels different from these other cars.
One of the best things about permanent all-wheel-drive is that the benefits are available at all times. Even on a dry road the car sticks well with no torque steer or spinning wheels. It goes without saying that the car grips much better on slippery surfaces.
As an aside all modern rally cars use all-wheel-drive and Suzuki has announced it will enter the spectacularly fast World Rally Championship in 2008 with a high performance specially built version of the SX4. Although the company will not say officially, it does appear promising that there will be a production version of this car probably named the Suzuki SX4 SWT (Suzuki Works Techno).
Subaru's WRX and Mitsubishi's Evo, both WRC-based road cars, have been hot tickets with car enthusiasts for several years. Suzuki already enjoys a strong following with bike enthusiasts so it makes sense for the company to follow in Subaru and Mitsubishi's footsteps down the rally performance road.
This is a roundabout way of saying that the SX4 has the basic ingredients for a solid performance car. In its stock trim it offers the most powerful engine in its class. It has a wide track for great handling and it seems to have a solid body. The downside is it tips the scales with a slight weight penalty, which means it is not much faster than its competitors and its fuel consumption is not quite as good.
The all-wheel-drive system is called i-AWD and operates in three modes via a console-mounted switch. The 2WD mode is for maximum fuel economy on dry pavement, the AWD Auto mode controls the drive power distribution ratio to the rear wheels from zero to 50 percent, depending on available traction while the AWD Lock mode is designed to facilitate traction in case of snow or mud. When in the lock mode, power is distributed to the rear wheels in the range of 30 percent to 50 percent. When the vehicle reaches 36 mph in AWD Lock mode, the system automatically switches to AWD Auto mode.
Honestly we don't see the point in the 2WD mode as the fuel savings have to be minimal and it means the driving feel changes when you switch to or from the automatic mode. It seems much more sensible to have the benefits available at all times so that in an emergency situation one has all four wheels doing the work. The lock mode is useful for really adverse conditions at slow speeds.
We found the car fun to drive with a manual transmission. It could do with a sixth gear as we found ourselves wanting to up shift several times as we drove the car on straight highways and freeways. Around the twisty bits, however, just shifting through the gate between second, third and fourth gear was fine.
We only tried an automatic for a short distance and the shifting seemed smooth. The SX4 with achieves a slightly better EPA-estimated fuel economy rating with an automatic than it does with the manual.
The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering feels fine with virtually no sign of torque steer. It might not be quite crisp enough for a racer but it's far from being sloppy. We never had the chance to try the brakes in a panic but have no reason to doubt they work fine especially as ABS and electronic brake-force distribution are included on all models.
Overall handling is competent thanks, as much as anything, to the long wheelbase and wide track as well as the AWD system. Those who like a soft cushy ride might find it a little too stiff for their liking. Those who want a sports car like ride will want to install stiffer springs and stronger shocks. The Sport model does not include any suspension changes. Nonetheless the SX4 does appear to provide a good base for making a truly sporty small car a la WRX or Evo.
The Suzuki SX4 is an ideal small car for anyone looking for something other than just the cheapest most basic car. The SX4 might cost slightly more but it delivers more, including all-wheel drive. In many ways it is difficult to pigeonhole the SX4, though it's probably fair to say it fits between the Honda Fit and the Subaru Impreza. As an added bonus, there's Suzuki's 100,000-mile, seven-year, fully transferable, zero-deductible powertrain limited warranty.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Rettie test drove the Suzuki SX4 near San Diego.