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Expert Reviews 1 of 6
By Kelsey Mays
September 30, 2009
Suzuki's SX4 has a sense of urban nimbleness that makes even its sportiest competitors seem hefty in comparison, but there are a lot of nagging issues weighing the car down. Some city drivers may still come away smitten, but for many others the SX4 will get lost in the compact-car shuffle.
Suzuki introduced the SX4 for the 2007 model year as an all-wheel-drive hatchback. A front-wheel-drive hatch and sedan have since been introduced — there's no all-wheel-drive sedan — and the car received some modest updates for 2010. The sedan comes as an SX4 Sedan and an SX4 Sport, with sub-trims within each. I drove a well-equipped SX4 Sport. Plain (Petite) Jane Shop the competition, and the first thing you'll notice about the SX4 is its diminutive size. A family friend who owns a Honda Fit said my test car looked tiny. Technically, it isn't: The SX4 has roughly the same footprint as cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but its height — 60.8 inches — is tall for this class, and that gives it a stubby, thin appearance. A benefit of that is the SX4's tall windows, which translates into excellent sight lines all around. That — and the car's relatively impressive 34.8-foot turning circle — makes this car great for city driving. At my North Chicago condo, I have to thread cars down a back alley to park in my garage. The SX4? Piece o' cake.
As cakes come, though, it's a bland one. Elements from the headlights to the fenders fit a cohesive styling theme, but that theme seems to be "forgettable design." This doesn't necessarily spell doom for the SX4: Toyota has struck automotive vanilla with the new Corolla, but that hasn't stopped droves of shoppers from choosing it. Basic Power This year's four-cylinder engine gains some guts — it makes 150 horsepower, up from last year's 143 — and it works through either a stick shift or a new continuously variable automatic transmission. The CVT is far from my favorite: Dig into the gas, and it takes too long to get power in return. At least when you get there it has ample acceleration, though the engine doesn't sound refined in the process.
The transmission's sluggishness doesn't hurt as much around town, but on a few occasions another editor and I noticed it seemed to disengage when coming to a stop. Our test car was a preproduction model, so it's possible the stopping issue has since been resolved, but keep an eye out for it on your test drive.
Speaking of stopping, my test car's four-wheel-discantilock brakes delivered exceptional performance. The brake pedal operates in a linear fashion, and with a little practice it's easy to fine-tune your deceleration. All SX4s get standard antilock brakes, though lesser models have rear drum brakes.
The EPA pegs combined mileage at 28 mpg for the SX4 Sedan and 26 mpg for the SX4 Sport, both with the CVT. That's an increase of 1 to 2 mpg over last year's four-speed automatic. In my Sport tester, another editor and I managed 27.5 mpg in a week of city and highway driving. The stick shift's rating rounds to 26 mpg overall in both the Sedan and Sport, though their highway rating is slightly different (23/33 mpg in the Sedan, 23/32 mpg in the Sport). It's unclear why Sport models get worse mileage than the Sedan, and Suzuki spokesman David Boldt says the automaker is still finalizing all the press details for 2010. Either way, those mileage figures are on the lower side in the SX4's segment. The Civic, for example, gets 12 percent better mileage overall.
Combined City/Highway Mileage (mpg)*
Toyota Corolla 1.8L
Kia Forte 2.0L
Honda Civic 1.8L
Hyundai Elantra 2.0L
Nissan Sentra 2.0L
Ford Focus 2.0L
Chevrolet Cobalt 2.2L
Suzuki SX4 2.0L
Mitsubishi Lancer 2.0L
*Base engines and sedan versions of 2010 models; ranges account for various mechanical differences — i.e., the SX4 is rated differently depending on trim, and the Forte offers a four- or five-speed automatic. All cars listed use regular (87-octane) fuel. Source: EPA data
Ride & Handling It's a good thing that the SX4 handles better than it looks. It's as nimble as the pros in this class — we're talking the likes of a Lancer, Mazda3 or Focus. The steering wheel requires a bit more effort to turn than many, but it delivers excellent turn-in precision and good feedback. It also returns naturally to 12 o'clock and stays there on the highway. The Civic's steering wheel feels more secure at high speeds, but for a car that seems susceptible to crosswinds, the SX4 doesn't wander off course like I'd expect it to. My SX4 Sport's sport-tuned suspension kept body roll nicely in check, too.
Sadly, good handling does lead to a rather undisciplined ride. The suspension cushions major bumps well enough, and it keeps the wheels connected with the road over rough patches. But smaller imperfections are your constant companion in this car: Over long stretches of less-than-smooth highway, my tester settled into a rhythm of up/down motions. We've complained of the same proclivities in crossovers like the Honda CR-V and, to a lesser extent, the Toyota RAV4. No matter where it happens, it gets old fast. The Inside Though the SX4's interior was on par with the competition a few years ago, Suzuki has since been leapfrogged. There are some highs: My test car's backlit gauges and silver dashboard accents looked sharp, and most controls operate with high-rent precision. But major areas you regularly come in contact with, like the door panels, are shod in hard, cheap-looking plastics. The steering wheel in my tester had unsightly gaps between the spokes and hub. The headliner is a mess of cut-rate mouse fur, and the narrow doors feel unsubstantial when slammed. The Civic and Hyundai Elantra feel a cut above; the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Jetta are in another league altogether.
Don't care so much about aesthetics? Well, there are functional issues, too. At 5-foot-11, I would liked it if the driver's seat could move back by a few more inches for a comfortable distance to the pedals. My legs were crammed too close. With the seat all the way back, I also wanted the steering wheel within closer reach, but it only has a tilt adjustment. The Civic and Corolla both include a telescoping adjustment. With the seat height cranked up to my tastes, I found the cushion angled too low for decent thigh support. In short, I just didn't fit — and I'm no NBA player. (Truth be told, I'd be hard-pressed to complete a decent layup.)
At least headroom in both rows is good. Really good, actually — one benefit of such a tall car. Legroom in the backseat is limited, even for a compact car; if you regularly need to carry adults, consider a competitor like the Kia Forte. Cargo space in back is 15.5 cubic feet, according to Suzuki, but that's a figure I have a hard time reconciling: The trunk is large for this class, but 15.5 cubic feet is more space than many midsize cars offer. The original '08 SX4 sedan listed 14.3 cubic feet of cargo room, which is a far more believable figure — and there haven't been any changes, other than the addition of a folding backseat, to explain the increase. We're still waiting for word from Suzuki. Safety, Reliability & Pricing In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the SX4 earned the top rating, Good, for front and side impacts. Rear crash protection — arguably less significant than front or side protection — is rated Marginal, keeping the SX4 from IIHS Top Safety Pick status. Standard safety features include six airbags and antilock brakes; an electronic stability system is optional.
Reliability ratings for the SX4 are strong; Consumer Reports surveys have rated the car Much Better Than Average, its top score, since the SX4's inception. Equally impressive is Suzuki's seven-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
The automaker has yet to release pricing for the 2010 SX4 , but 2009 sedans ranged from $13,299 to about $19,000 for a loaded SX4 Sport. That's a relative bargain for this class. On the features front, technology trumps luxury: Leather upholstery, heated seats and a moonroof were unavailable for the '09, but top trim levels included a navigation system, automatic climate control and a keyless access system. Base models, on the other hand, came stripped, including manual windows and no stereo. No doubt there will be some equipment and pricing shuffles for 2010, but they shouldn't be too drastic. SX4 in the Market Certain buyers may still find the SX4 suits them well, and there are no red flags on the reliability or safety fronts to caution otherwise. But the car has been leapfrogged by its competitors — in gas mileage, interior quality, ride comfort and more. It still has some neat tricks, but for all the compromises, the SX4's charm is wearing thin.