Suzuki's new SX4 represents a bargain-priced car with more ruggedness than anything else in its class. Its interior dimensions match that of the Scion xB, but without the crazy boxy exterior. It's a little bigger than the Honda Fit, and feels substantially more powerful. But the real thing that sets the SX4 apart from its competitors in the budget market is that all-wheel drive is standard.
But unlike some of its competitors, the SX4 has almost no cabin tech. Neither navigation nor Bluetooth are available. The stereo in the base trim level car, the one we got in to test, only distinguishes itself by playing MP3 and WMA CDs. There isn't even an auxiliary audio jack. The slightly pricier SX4 Sport comes with a better stereo and, strangely enough, a smart key.
Test the tech: World Rally Championship
When we first saw the Suzuki SX4, at the 2006 Geneva auto show, we figured that its small size and all-wheel-drive system made it a potential World Rally Championship (WRC) competitor. At the 2007 Geneva auto show, we saw that we were on the right track, with Suzuki showing off a WRC version, ostensibly a concept, of the SX4.
This WRC version of the SX4 was on display at the 2007 Geneva auto show.
Because of the rally potential of the SX4, we decided to take it on some dirt and gravel roads that would simulate rally conditions to see how it handled. Given that our tester was a production SX4, we wouldn't expect it to hold up to real rally conditions, so our testing involved only short runs on unpaved and gravel roads, with lower cornering speeds.
We found good terrain for our rally test near Half Moon Bay, on the California coast. To make matters more fun, it had been raining all day. Our first test road was a single lane road with remnants of pavement that snaked up the side of various mountains. We displayed suitable caution on this road due to its lack of guard rails, which could lead to long plunges down into uninhabited canyons. We also quickly noted that the SX4 has a cabin much higher than a Mitsubishi Evo or Subaru WRX. Although the head room was spacious, the high center of gravity had us concerned.
But the SX4 performed surprisingly well. We bombed down our partially paved road, kicking up gravel and slamming it into second for the tight corners, and the car felt sure-footed. Body roll was also minimal, with the tight suspension absorbing the bumps and keeping the tires on the ground. On Suzuki's WRC site, chief engineer Osamu Honda talks about how the production SX4 was designed to have a very rigid body, something we could appreciate in our faux rally driving.
We also put the car on a short dirt track to get a better sense of the all-wheel-drive system. The car didn't disappoint, with all tires gripping through some tight cornering on one particular patch that gave way to more grass than dirt. We felt the effect of the all-wheel drive as power transferred between the front and rear tires to compensate for slippage.
Road? What road?
The concept WRC SX4 differs surprisingly little from the production SX4. Both cars use the same base engine, but the WRC version gets a turbocharger and stronger components, such as the crankshaft, resulting in a tripling of the engine's torque. The WRC SX4 is lowered a bit and probably has more performance oriented shocks and suspension components. The all-wheel-drive system is the same from car to car. Although our test was favorable, we have yet to see how the real WRC SX4 will do in competition.
In the cabin
As we mentioned above, the Suzuki SX4 is very short on cabin tech. Our base trim model came with a mediocre-sounding four-speaker stereo. Each door had grills for two speakers, but the smaller, tweeter grill was unoccupied, with sound only coming from the bigger speakers lower in the doors. And the sound quality did nothing for our music. Bass and highs were muted, with most of the sound compressed in the midrange. That's the first concession to achieve its low $14,999 price tag. The Sport trim level, which costs $1,400 more, makes use of those tweeter grills, and throws in a subwoofer, for a total of nine speakers.
The base trim stereo includes a single CD player that can read MP3s and WMAs, and is ready for XM satellite radio. We found CD navigation reasonable, and the single line display showed artist, album, or track name at the push of a button. The Sport trim SX4 comes with a six-CD changer in the dash, something we would have preferred. Steering wheel-mounted audio controls can be had in the SX4 with the Convenience package, which costs $300. An iPod adapter is available as a dealer install for $160. There was no auxiliary audio input in our test car.
The stereo plays MP3 CDs, but only one at a time.
The Sport trimmed SX4 gets more speakers, as we mentioned, and the steering wheel audio controls standard. It also comes with a smart key, which lets you start the car without taking the key from your pocket, a somewhat strange feature for a car priced well under $20,000.
Navigation or hands-free cell phone integration isn't available in the SX4 at any trim level. Our tech list rounds out with a single-line display at the top of the center stack that shows the current time and the trip computer. The interior space is very roomy, with substantial head room. The cargo area with the rear seats up is only enough for a few bags of groceries, but put the seats down and the hatchback makes the space very usable. We found the cloth seats got uncomfortably warm after a few hours of driving.
Under the hood
The Suzuki SX4 performs in a fairly satisfying manner. Its small 2-liter, four-cylinder engine puts out 143 horsepower and 136 ft-lbs of torque. This power gives the SX4 peppy acceleration from a stop and takes it up hills with reasonable speed, as long as it's geared down properly. The gearbox itself isn't anything spectacular, just a five-speed manual. A four-speed automatic can be had as an option.
The EPA rates this power train at 23mpg city and 28mpg on the highway. In our mixed city and freeway driving, we saw economy of 24.9mpg, which isn't bad. The lack of a sixth gear meant the engine stayed around 3,5000rpm at freeway speeds, suggesting that a better gearbox would have given the SX4 better mileage. The California Air Resources Board gives the car an LEV II rating for emissions, which isn't particularly good, considering the size of the engine.
You want all-wheel drive? Just hit the switch.
The SX4 really shined in its handling. The rigid body and all-wheel drive played a big part in this performance area. The all-wheel-drive system is particularly easy to use. A rocker switch lets you go from front-wheel drive to all-wheel drive, to all-wheel-drive lock mode. Front- or two-wheel drive is useful for saving gas on regular dry roads. All-wheel-drive mode transfers power to the rear wheels when needed, while the lock mode keeps 30 percent to 50 percent of power going to the rear wheels. The car will automatically switch from lock mode to normal all-wheel-drive mode at speeds greater than 36mph.
At $14,999 for the base level Suzuki SX4, the car is a pretty good bargain. But its almost complete lack of cabin tech might make a Scion xB or a Nissan Versa look more attractive. We would at least opt for the Suzuki SX4 Sport, which is only $1,400 more than the base version. The car showed a lot of promise in its handling characteristics, and the standard all-wheel drive could be the deciding factor for many people, especially those living in places with snowy winters. WRC fans might want to wait for the Suzuki team's results, or save their pennies for a real Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Evo.