Suzuki SX4 SportBack – amazing bang for the buck

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We were taken back three years ago that Suzuki was selling a small, practical vehicle called the SX4 in sedan and hatchback formats with all-wheel drive, a host of options including keyless start, and a long-term warranty for less than 16 grand. We thought, “Amazing.”

Suzuki is still selling the same practical small car in 2010, but with numerous enhancements. All-wheel drive is still available in the high-roof “crossover” hatchback format and still at a bargain price in 2010 dollars of $16,849, just a thousand bucks more than the comparable two-wheel drive model.

What we find even more amazing is that this fun little car that bucks the current trend and actually shows function over form is not selling particularly well compared to most of the considerable competition in the small car ranks.

Nearly 30,000 were sold in its initial model year 2008, but sales slumped to 20,713 in 2009. Upgrades and the addition of a top-line SportBack model may help to improve sales for 2010.

The biggest enhancement comes with the powertrain. The little Suzuki gains a new 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that pumps out 150 horsepower, seven more than last year. What appears to be only a modest gain is enhanced by new transmissions, a 6-speed manual replacing the previous 5-speed and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) replacing the four-speed automatic..

We admit the SX4 is still no rocketship, but measured against such sub-compact competition as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Kia Soul and Hyundai Accent, it acquits itself quite well.

And gas mileage — something that we feel will become more important again — has been improved to 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway in manual-shift and 23/30 with the CVT.

The SX4 hatch is indeed a functional vehicle getting the maximum interior space from a very small size. Four riders can be comfortable in an open greenhouse environment. Styling has not been sacrificed to accommodate great function with a handsome wheels-pushed-to-the-corners look.

The SX4 gives buyers a large number of options in either a traditional sedan setup or a hatchback. We prefer the hatch because of its high roof giving the passenger area an airy feel while offering fold-down-flat rear-seat cargo-carrying capacity of 54 cubic feet. That’s considerable storage space in a vehicle measuring just 162.8 inches in length.

We like the Suzuki design even more than we did three years ago in light of so many new vehicles — including the new “crossover sedans” that sacrifice headroom with radically sloping windshields and even more radically sloping rear glass that sacrifice sight lines to the rear.

The newest model, the SportBack GTS, is loaded with standard equipment for $18,684 in two-wheel mode and $19,823 (prices include destination charges) with the CVT. But to get the slight measure of increased sportiness you must give up all-wheel drive.

The SportBack comes with 17-inch wheels wrapped in low-profile Dunlop rubber, a slightly lowered ride height, performance shocks, standard anti-roll bars, an aerodynamic kit, unique grille treatment, and rear hatch spoiler.

We don't know if the CVT would suck too much life out of the four-banger for our taste, but we found the six-speed manual shifted precisely with good clutch feel. The little Suzuki displayed a willingness to run on a journey over some of our favorite twisting back roads. Keeping the engine percolating rewarded us with a fun driving experience and the ability to keep ahead of fast-moving traffic while merging and overtaking. This doesn’t mean the SX4 SportBack is a small sports car, but it does point up the fact you don’t have to give up energetic driving for the sake of cargo hauling and fuel economy.

If you opt for an all-wheel-drive model, you will get a rather sophisticated system when factoring in the vehicle’s relatively 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 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 SportBack interior trim includes an all-new instrument cluster with a driver information center, aluminum-look accents, and an upgraded AM/FM/CD audio system with MP3 and XM Satellite Radio compatibility. The cloth seats in our test car had a nice texture and feel and proved comfortable over about 200 miles of driving.

Integrated navigation, made standard on the base 2009 SX4 Crossover, continues on the 2010 SX4 SportBack and now can be had with airline arrival and departure information, Bluetooth onscreen text display, 3D graphics, lane guidance and Doppler weather maps. Also available is MSN Real Time Traffic. 

While we applaud Suzuki for making navigation standard in an inexpensive vehicle there's a downside. It’s basically a quasi-portable unit stuck high on the dashboard, taking a long reach to use the touch screen. When not in use, it can be pushed down out of sight. Unfortunately it can’t be removed for use in another car.

Standard equipment across all trims except base starting at $14,949 include full power accessories (windows, door locks), height-adjustable driver's seat, tilt steering wheel, air conditioning and a four-speaker sound system with CD player and audio jack. All trim levels get antilock brakes and a full range of airbags. The SportBack also includes power mirrors, leather steering wheel, fog lights, upgraded audio system with AM/FM/6-discCD/MP3, an XM satellite radio-ready system, keyless start, automatic HVAC, aero body package, cruise control, 17-inch alloy wheels, and trip computer.

Our test vehicle came with a couple of extras including metallic paint and Bluetooth for an out the door price of $19,248. Just amazing!

Base price: $13,359; as driven, $19,248
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 150 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 140 pound-feet @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 98.4 inches
Length: 162.8 inches
Curb weight: 2,732 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Cargo capacity: 54 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30 mpg highway, 22 mpg city
0-60: 9.0 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Honda Fit, Mazda3, Nissan Versa

The Good:
• Low-cost all-wheel drive
• Navigation system standard
• Roomy passenger compartment

The Bad:
• Navigation screen hard to reach

The Ugly:
• Need to fold rear seats to get real storage