The nimble and utilitarian SX4 not only drives well compared to other cars like it, its interior is high-quality, the cabin is quiet and the seats are supportive. Now, if it could only get better gas mileage, it would win us over completely. Even so, I'm mighty impressed with this mini SUV wannabe.
The SX4 is just odd-looking. It's not exactly ugly, like a Scion xB, or exceptionally funky, like a Toyota Yaris, it's just odd. The front end is almost attractive, but then the windshield rakes back and up — way up — to an impossibly high roofline. It's that tall roof and abundant side glass that throws me off. The trend in automotive design today is to raise the height of the doors in order to protect passengers, meaning the amount of window glass is shrinking. Not on the SX4.
Besides huge windows for the driver and front passenger, there are rather large fixed glass panels between the windows and the windshield, similar to those on the Toyota Prius. This helps only slightly with visibility, but does add to an overall airy feel in the cabin.
From behind, as from the front, the SX4 looks almost handsome, with its SUV-like layout and large silver-colored body panel above the muffler. It's only that misshapen profile that really puzzles me (and probably most of the motoring public). It'll stick out in a crowd, but at least Suzuki can't be accused of playing it safe, like it did with its past compact attempts: the Reno and Aerio. I'd take the SX4's looks over those two snoozers in a second.
The outside may stray from safe, but once inside Suzuki went straight for sensible and surprisingly upscale. For an economy car, the Suzuki SX4 definitely holds its own against competitors like the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa. The window buttons feel solid to the touch, the air conditioning vents are fitted with substantial hardware and the seats are extremely supportive, if a tad bit firm. There seemed to be an unusual amount of extra head space between the top of my 5-foot, 10-inch frame and the ceiling. I couldn't believe how much headroom there was.
Then I tried out the back seats. It seems the high roofline gives the driver a lot of headroom, but the rear passengers don't get as much room. The backseat is set on top of the cargo floor, which is level with the rear hatch. That means the bottom of the seat is significantly higher than the front seats. This stadium effect limits headroom and makes the backseat as claustrophobic as any subcompact I've tested. The rear seats' saving grace is that they flip forward to extend rear cargo room from 16.2 cubic feet to 54.3 cubic feet.
With the rear seats still in place, I filled the cargo area with groceries for a week's worth of meal planning. With the seats folded out of the way, the space opens up for considerable luggage hauling but didn't seem that useful for bulky items.
Going & Stopping
Suzuki equipped the SX4 with a respectable 143-horsepower four-cylinder that's on par with other engines in the car's class. It sure doesn't feel fast, though when matched with the five-speed manual transmission my test vehicle felt "zippy" if not outright speedy. It darts in and out of traffic easily on city streets, and merges with highway traffic surprisingly well.
The engine doesn't feel as powerful as the base engines in the Mazda3 and Honda Civic, but holds its own with the smaller Fit and Versa. I was a bit annoyed with the shifter: Its short throw placement was terrific, but whenever the shifter actually had to engage a gear it was greeted with gritty, if not stubborn, acceptance. This stood out because the SX4 was otherwise easy to drive and required light clutch pedal effort.
All-disc antilock brakes are standard on the SX4. In days past this would be unheard of, but cars of every size are slowly adding safety features like this as standard equipment. The SX4 is still ahead of the curve, though. Its brake pedal response isn't as firm as in a Honda, but it is above average and adds to the overall feel that this is a substantial car to drive.
Ride & Handling
What should get the most attention about the SX4 is its standard all-wheel drive. The system is interestingly done: There's a switch on the center console that lets the driver stay in front-wheel drive during good weather, which could greatly help the car's gas mileage during long trips. You'll need all the help you can get, as the SX4 only manages an estimated 23/28 mpg (city/highway), while competition like the Fit gets 33/38 mpg. I can't believe that a car as small as the SX4 gets such poor mileage.
Now back to the all-wheel-drive system. With a flick of the switch it goes into automatic all-wheel drive, delivering the proper amount of power to either set of wheels, depending on road conditions. There's also a four-wheel-drive setting that would be optimum for severe weather, like snow- and ice-covered roads.
Whatever the setting, the awkwardly shaped SX4 always feels well-planted for such a small, tall vehicle. Sixteen-inch alloy wheels are standard. The tires provide decent grip, but I would have preferred a bit wider rubber, even if it negatively impacted the already-low mileage figures. There wasn't any tipsy feeling, but at the same time the narrow tire tread was the one thing that made the SX4 feel like an economy car when everything else seemed to be reaching one rung higher.
The ride was relatively smooth compared to others in the class. The suspension isn't tuned for sporty driving, so bumps were muted. The SX4's quiet cabin was another positive I couldn't help but be impressed with. Neither road nor wind noise was ever a problem, and I could hold hushed conversations during highway driving.
A base model is usually a buyer's last resort. It typically means getting the bare minimum a car needs to drive off the lot, with few frills. Automakers, however, are increasingly changing that by adding more standard features — especially the Korean and Japanese companies. The SX4 is another affordable car that can be driven off the lot with no options yet still give the owner a sense that he didn't lose out on anything in the bargain.
I already mentioned the standard ABS and all-wheel drive. Those two features alone should warrant the base model's $14,999 starting price. The 16-inch alloy wheels also help, along with a standard roof rack, CD player, power windows, power door locks with keyless entry, and air conditioning. The only option we'd recommend is cruise control for those who have grown accustomed to it. That comes in a $300 package that also includes steering-wheel-mounted stereo controls and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The automatic transmission is a $1,000 option.
An SX4 Sport model adds keyless ignition, a nine-speaker stereo system, cruise control, automatic climate control, heated mirrors, fog lamps, traction control and an electronic stability system for $16,399. The only option on the Sport model is the automatic transmission.
Much of the standard safety equipment is listed above, but it should be pointed out that stability control, only offered in the Sport model, has been shown to greatly reduce fatalities. It's also a feature not often found in this class; it's not available in the Versa or Fit. Otherwise, the SX4 comes equipped with side curtain airbags for front and rear passengers, as well as seat-mounted side-impact airbags for the driver and front passenger.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has crash tested the SX4 at this time.
Suzuki SX4 in the Market
The subcompact segment is one of the fastest-growing and most competitive niches today. Suzuki, formerly an also-ran in almost every category, has a strong player in the SX4, whose standard all-wheel drive gives it a decided advantage in the segment.
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