The 2010 Suzuki SX4 Sportback feels much smaller than it looks -- and it looks tiny.
That's because this little runabout stretches a total 162 inches or just under 13 and a half feet. In other words, the overall length of the Suzuki is more than 10 inches shorter than the wheelbase of the 2011 Ford Super Duty Crew Cab with an 8-foot bed. So it's small.
I can only hope that these wee cars are truly not the future of the American motoring public. Despite the speculation that gas is going to pass $3 a gallon again this spring -- and we'll start to hear all of the hoopla about downsizing consumers -- driving a little car is just not that much fun.
Suzuki tries with the Sportback, a handy little four-door hatchback. The 150-horsepower 2-liter engine provides enough pep in the city to get you around town, especially with the six-speed manual transmission, but on the highway, I was often scared.
Entering the highway was a timid adventure, approaching oncoming traffic the same way a novice swimmer might a walk up to a cold pool. This kind of surprised me because the SX4 has more power than just about any small car around. Something like the Honda Fit only pushes 107 horsepower but still feels much more confident merging onto the highway.
While technically, the car can carry five passengers, the difference between the car's curb weight and its gross vehicle weight is less than 1,000 pounds. The all-wheel drive model with a manual transmission weighs in at 2,855 pounds and has a gross vehicle weight of 3,770 pounds. That leaves just 915 pounds for everything inside the vehicle. The five people inside would have to be skinny hipsters sans fedoras. However, in the heartland, 915 pounds adds up fast and would more likely mean three or four Americans sans clothes on a good day, if you want to call that a good day.
With just me, fully clothed, the SX4 provided a good enough ride. It was a little noisy on the highway and the engine whined, even in sixth gear, but it handled pretty well. But, if I wanted oomph, I'd have to drop the gearbox to fourth to find any power.
The steering felt well balanced and the short wheelbase -- 98.4 inches -- gave the SX4 Sportback a genuine sporty feel. But those moments only lasted for a few seconds. Most of the time, the road noise was harsh, the ride rough and you tended to get out of the Sportback feeling worse than you did getting into it. A go-kart feel is one thing, taking Advil after the ride to work is another.
So maybe this small car could serve as a high-mileage commuter. After all, whenever anyone sees a little car, they automatically think übermileage. If you're sacrificing space and performance for high mileage, that might make sense.
But the SX4 Sportback doesn't produce excellent mileage. My test model, according to EPA testing, averaged 22 miles per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. Those are not even close to high mileage numbers I was expecting.
In fact, bigger cars do better on the open road than the Sportback. The Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata all post better highway figures.
Few likeable features
Inside this little car, there was more than enough room to move around. The soft seats were fine for short drives, but a long highway haul would certainly leave your back in knots. However, when I did get the seat in a good driving position, I realized there was no room in the back seat for a person to sit behind me.
The overall layout of the interior was well done, though there was a heavy plastic feel throughout. There's a utilitarian feel, too, and it seems more like simple transportation than anything else. It's the Chevy Aveo of Suzuki, just more expensive.
It does have one feature I've thought ingenious since its introduction. At the top of the dash is a plastic basket that holds a navigation system built by Garmin. The box closes nicely and hides away so people walking by a parked Suzuki won't notice it. Better yet, there are no suction cups on your windshield or wires dangling anywhere -- the unit is completely enclosed.
The system, with a monthly subscription with Microsoft Corp., provides traffic updates and an easy to view map. You can also pull the GPS out of the car and take it with you. The real beauty of this system is it is only a few hundred dollars instead thousands of dollars like the navigation systems in other cars. These are the kind of features buyers appreciate and integrating it into dash only makes it that much better.
Another feature I like on the Sportback is the hatchback. There is a sedan version of the Suzuki SX4 but it lacks the utility of a hatchback. When the second row folds down, there is 54 cubic feet of space to carry lots of stuff.
But those few features don't outweigh the lack of power and underwhelming gas mileage. There are simply better cars available for similar prices, or even less, that provide more function, more power and better gas mileage.
The SX4, even with all-wheel drive, is not nearly as capable or as fun as something like the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa or Chevrolet Aveo.
There is one thing it does best of all of those vehicles, however, and that's price.
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