Suzuki SX4 makes its move in the B-segment

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

All-wheel drive is becoming increasingly popular, now found on many vehicles including sedans and sports cars. New, sophisticated systems that drive all four wheels are better than two-wheel drive in nearly all applications.

But if you want all-wheel drive you’ll probably have to pay extra even in big, high-end sport utility vehicles and the new breed of crossover utilities.

Standard-equipment all-wheel drive is rare, usually reserved for high-dollar models.
Subaru is an exception. It has featured all-wheel drive for years, but all of its vehicles now carry prices north of $20.000. Audi has made all-wheel drive its business as well, but the German company’s prices start above $30,000.

This makes Suzuki Motor Corporation unique because in 2007 it’s manufacturing a sub-compact station wagon — the SX4 — with standard Intelligent All-Wheel Drive (i-AWD) starting at $14,999. And it’s backing up its system with a seven-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

The i-AWD system is rather sophisticated when factoring in the vehicle’s low price. It operates in three modes via a console-mounted switch – two-wheel drive for maximum fuel economy on dry pavement; automatic all-wheel drive, which transfers as much as 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels depending on available traction; and all-wheel drive Lock, which is designed to offer maximum traction in case of snow or mud. When in Lock mode, a minimum of 30 percent up to a maximum of 50 percent of the power is distributed to the rear wheels. When the vehicle reaches 36 mph in lock mode, the system automatically switches to auto mode.

The SX4 competes in the “B” segment of small cars which include the Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Scion xB.

The Suzuki’s advantages in this growing segment feature class-leading space for cargo and passengers, an impressive array of standard safety equipment including the afore mentioned all-wheel drive, and that significant long-term warranty.

Interior space in the SX4 is just a notch below amazing considering its 162.8-inch length and 98-inch wheelbase. Luggage capacity is a gargantuan 38.1 cubic feet. By comparison, the Fit has 21.3 cubic feet and the Versa 17.8. With the rear seats folded, cargo capacity is 54 cubic feet compared to 42 for the Fit and 50 for the Versa.
Passenger space has not been sacrificed to gain cargo capacity. Front legroom is a generous 41.4 inches and rear leg room mimics that of many mid-sized sedans. The tall roof gives the interior the feeling of spaciousness.

We found the dashboard layout to our liking with intuitive switchgear.

The interior materials are of decent quality for the segment, and fit and finish is excellent.
You won’t have to pony up an extra $600 for side-curtain airbags like in the Yaris, and you will get standard four-wheel disc brakes, something not even available on the larger and more upscale Nissan Sentra.

Other standard safety includes side-impact air-bags, antilock brakes and a tire pressure monitoring system. Stability control, something not usually offered in this segment, comes standard in the Sport trim level.

The SX4 comes with a high level of standard equipment including power windows and doorlocks, power mirrors, air conditioning, XM Satellite-ready audio with CD/MP3 player, outside temperature readout, tilt steering wheel, keyless entry and roof rails.

That’s a lot of stuff in a small and attractive package, but if we are making this little Suzuki sound like a home run, it’s not. It’s more like a stand-up double. And you get to second with lots of huffing and puffing.

And the reason is weight, which affects gas mileage and performance.

The engine, one of the biggest in its segment when measured by horsepower and torque, is strained to keep up. The SX4 comes in at nearly 3,000 pounds making the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder run awfully hard despite a generous 143 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque.

By comparison, the Versa weighs in at 2,700 pounds; the Fit comes in at a lean 2,432 pounds and the Yaris sedan at 2,293 pounds.

While the SX4 achieves about the same performance numbers as the Yaris and Versa, it uses about 20 percent more fuel. Those numbers include 10 seconds from 0 to 60 with the five-speed manual and 11 seconds with the four-speed automatic.

Around-town driving — up to about 40 miles per hour — can be accomplished in a sprightly fashion. The fall off in performance comes at the higher speeds in merging and passing.

We could live with the performance and we could live with the gas mileage as long as our neighbor who owns a Fit doesn’t continually remind us of his 35 mpg. The SX4 is EPA rated at 23-city and 28-highway with the five-speed and 24/30 with the automatic. Good enough to be disappointing.

But there is always a silver lining someplace. By the time you figure in the ample room for four passengers and the best-in-class cargo space, not to mention the standard all-wheel drive and safety equipment, the SX4 should overcome its mileage and performance deficiencies in the minds of many people, especially those who need all-wheel drive more frequently than others.

We tested the car both on the East and West Coasts and it proved an equal opportunity piece of transportation. It handled the sweeping back roads void of congestion but wet with snow with the same tame and friendly attitude as it handled the congestion of California’s freeways.

Our little red test car certainly attracted a lot of attention. It hit the cute button on the meters of both young and old – but most asked “what is it?”

Personally this is the kind of runabout that we could live with. Getting around town; cavernous enough to make only one trip to Home Depot for the stuff you need and spiffy enough to feel good about the “cute” car you’re driving. If it had just a bit more in the mileage department it would be a sure triple.

The SX4 comes in just two trim levels, base and Sport. Adding the automatic transmission to the base car brings the price to $15,999.

The Sport manual is $16,399 and the Sport automatic is $17,399. For the extra cash outlay you get SmartPass keyless entry, automatic climate control, cruise control, premium audio system with six-CD changer and steering-wheel mounted audio controls.
An iPod interface is available at Suzuki dealers.

We liked the generous array of standard features in the base package, but we were at first dismayed that cruise control was not offered. It’s a “must have” in our driving life. Then we discovered that we didn’t have to move up to the Sport trim level just to get cruise. Suzuki offers a $300 Convenience Package on the base model that includes cruise, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and steering wheel audio controls. A worthwhile bargain.

We think the all-new SX4 fills the bill those who don’t want to bust the budget on a new car, but needs decent cargo space, desires safety and all-weather capability, and can live happily with Suzuki’s generous standard equipment without the need of expensive options.

The SX4 is still a double in a world made up of putouts and base hits.


Base price: $14,999; as driven: $14,999
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 143 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 136 @ 3,500 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 98.4 inches
Length: 162.8 inches
Curb weight: 2,968 pounds
Turning circle: 35.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 38.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 28 mpg highway, 23 city
0-60: 9.2 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Scion xB

The Good:
• Standard all-wheel drive for $15,000
• 100,000-mile powertrain warranty
• Segment-leading cargo capacity

The Bad:
• Needs to shed a few hundred pounds

The Ugly:
• Lethargic performance and mediocre fuel mileage may sink an otherwise good car