Suzuki SX4 — affordable all-wheel drive

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 all-wheel drive systems 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 the high-dollar models.

Subaru is a rare exception. It has featured all-wheel drive for years, but all of their vehicles now carry prices north of 20 grand. Audi has made all-wheel drive its business as well, but the German company's prices start north of 30 grand.

This makes Suzuki Motor Corporation unique because it started manufacturing a sub-compact station wagon in 2007 — the SX4 — with standard Intelligent All-Wheel Drive (i-AWD). For the 2008 model year the AWD wagon begins at $15,895. New for 2008, Suzuki added a front-drive Sport sedan variant for 2008. Both the sedan and the front-drive wagon start at $15,395 including destination charge.

Suzuki is backing up its AWD 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 new so-called B segment of small boxes which includes the Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Scion xD.

The Suzuki's advantages in this growing segment include class-leading space for cargo and passengers, an impressive array of standard safety features including all-wheel drive, and 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 legroom 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 of decent quality for the segment, and fit and finish is excellent.
Let's talk safety. 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.

Standard safety includes side-impact and side-curtain airbags, antilock brakes and a tire pressure monitoring system. Stability control, something not usually offered in this segment, comes standard in the Touring trim level.

The SX4 comes with a high level of standard features for a 15 grand base price including power windows and doorlocks, air conditioning, XM Satellite radio-ready audio with CD/MP3 player, outside temperature readout, tilt steering wheel, keyless entry and roof rails.

We are making this little Suzuki sound like a home run, but it's more like a stand-up double.

And the reason is its weight, which affects gas mileage and performance. The engine, one of the best 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 huff and puff to keep up 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 are about 10 seconds 0 to 60 for the five-speed manual and 11 seconds for 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 power comes at the higher numbers 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 AWD is EPA rated at 21 city and 28 highway with the five-speed and 24/30 with the automatic.

Figure the ample room for four passengers and the best-in-class cargo space, not to mention the standard all-wheel drive, and the SX4 should overcome its mileage and performance deficiencies in the minds of many people, especially those who live in the cold-weather climates.

The SX4 hatchback comes in just three trim levels, Base, Convenience and Touring. Adding the automatic transmission to the base car brings the price to $16,495.

The Convenience  manual is $15,895 and the automatic is $16,995. 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 think the all-new SX4 fills the bill for the family who doesn'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 the standard equipment without the need of expensive options.

And now for those who don't like the hatchback format, a sedan is available. The sedan, remember, comes only with front-wheel drive.