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First drive: 2010 Suzuki SX4 Sportback

CNET Car Tech takes a look at a preproduction version of Suzuki's new SX4 Sportback.

2010 Suzuki SX4 Sportback
Suzuki's latest incarnation of its SX4 is a hot hatchback. Josh Miller/CNET

After Suzuki launched its SX4 in 2006, the car became so successful that the company continues to offer variants, with the 2010 Suzuki SX4 SportBack being the latest. The car was originally offered with standard all-wheel drive, but that version is now called the SX4 Crossover. The new SportBack version is motivated by just the front wheels and is intended as more of a city car. Suzuki let us spend a week with a preproduction version that had been fitted with some suspension enhancements.

We previously reviewed the 2009 Suzuki SX4 Sport, a front-wheel-drive sedan version. The SX4 SportBack comes in with a hatchback body and a new automatic transmission. The SX4 SportBack we tested lacked any real tech options, just having a stereo with a CD changer and satellite radio. But, as we saw with the SX4 Sport, Suzuki will offer its SuzukiTRIP navigation option, an integrated Garmin Nuvi 760 that offers live traffic reports and Bluetooth phone support among its key features. The navigation system has only a 4.8-inch screen, but Suzuki does a good job of mounting it in the car and integrating it with the audio system.

Suzuki SX4 stereo
Cabin tech was limited to this basic stereo in the SX4 Sportback. Josh Miller/CNET

The only feature in this SX4 SportBack that could be considered tech was the stereo, having as its sources a six-disc in-dash changer capable of reading MP3 and WMA CDs, satellite radio, and an auxiliary input. Music plays through an eight-speaker audio system, complete with center channel and subwoofer. This setup proved generally tinny, although we appreciated the subtle richness added by the subwoofer.

Small cars like the SX4 SportBack can be a whole lot of fun, able to zip around quickly and provide thrills at low-to-moderate-speed driving conditions, which is about all you can hope for on public roads. The SX4 SportBack's two-liter four-cylinder engine showed a willingness to go from the start, pulling the car quickly as soon as we put it in drive. That engine is tuned for 150 horsepower at 6,200rpm and 140 pound-feet of torque at 3,500rpm.

The SX4 SportBack uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT), with no fixed gears, so it can constantly seek the most efficient ratio. This CVT has some sporting pretensions, a manual mode with six virtual gears that can be selected using the shifter or paddles on the steering wheel. In drive mode, the transmission delivers smooth acceleration with moderate pressure on the gas pedal. Stepping on it, the CVT's program kicks into power mode, moving to a lower ratio and taking advantage of the engine's peak horsepower.

Suzuki SX4 paddle shifter
Paddle shifters come with the CVT transmission. Josh Miller/CNET

We try out some fast starts in the SX4 SportBack, and find the CVT limiting the drama, giving the wheels enough power to get going, but not enough that they lose grip. And while initial acceleration feels sprightly, the SX4 SportBack takes a while to get to 60 mph. Trying out manual gear selection, we find that the CVT programming doesn't have much respect for those virtual shift points, making automatic upshifts if we let the revs go past 5,000. With the CVT, it's unlikely that the engine's peak horsepower will ever get tapped.

Suzuki also offers a six-speed manual transmission for the SX4 SportBack, which should prove a lot more fun, as you will be able to push redline and probably make the front tires smoke.

Getting the SX4 SportBack into the hills lets the car show its impressive handling characteristics. Although it uses a torsion bar suspension in the rear, Suzuki has fitted the SX4 SportBack with antiroll bars front and rear, and performance shocks. A lower ride height also helps it in the corners. This preproduction car has also been fitted with some aftermarket performance components, such as special springs and tires.

With this special tuning, we were surprised to find the little SX4 SportBack staying flat in the corners. With each dive into a turn, the car showed just a little understeer, which was quickly corrected with a little extra power from the engine. The front wheels dug in and pulled the car through, at least when we had the CVT set correctly beforehand. In drive mode, the transmission wouldn't give us enough power, but the manual modes virtual third gear would usually do the trick.

Suzuki SX4 rear view
The car was fitted with some special suspension equipment to improve handling. Josh Miller/CNET

Although not entirely stock, this SX4 SportBack demonstrates how the little car can work as a tuner. With Suzuki's blessing, Road Race Motorsports offers many performance upgrades for the SX4, such as turbo kits and carbon fiber hoods.

Fuel economy numbers haven't been published for the SX4 SportBack as of this test, but it should get similar numbers to the SX4 Sport we reviewed earlier, which are 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway. During our time with the car, we fell short of that range, coming in at 20.8 mpg, most likely due to repeated handling tests on winding roads.