Just in time to help consumers handle record gasoline prices that show no signs of backing off, Japan's Suzuki gives us a small sedan that even some diehard SUV lovers could live with.

Sure, you'd have to give up all of that extra cargo space in the back of the sport utility, but the 2008 Suzuki SX4 Sport doesn't scrimp on passenger comfort. I'm a big guy, and I found the driver's seat to be more accommodating than the ones in some much-larger vehicles I've tested lately.

That's the marvelous thing about several of the new fuel-sipping compacts that have come onto the market in the past year or two: They're surprisingly roomy for their outward appearance.

Of course, that's the only way they could be successful in the U.S. market. We might be willing to give up on size in favor of great fuel economy, but we won't let ourselves be stuffed into sardine cans just to save a few bucks at the gas pumps.

The automakers finally understand that about Americans. When some of the first Japanese and South Korean cars came to the United States, they were too cramped for us. Those were vehicles that had been designed for Asian markets, where people overall are a bit smaller than we are here.

To make these cars more palatable for us, they have to be bigger inside than they look, and there's where this new crop of compacts shines.

The first and possibly most-important measurement that these cars needed to improve upon was roof height. Americans tend to be taller than people in many other parts of the world, and with the small cars that we used to see, consumers who were even nearing six feet tall would find their heads bumping the ceiling.

Forget that in the Suzuki Sport. As with almost all of the new small cars, this one has a high ceiling that can accommodate even some basketball-player-size folks.

The seat width and knee/legroom are ample as well, particularly in the front bucket seats, where the adults usually are going to be sitting. But surprisingly, the Sport also has a back seat that can accommodate adults. Two fit better than three, but three can ride there for a while, perhaps even in a daily carpool situation.

For kids, the back seat is almost cavernous, so there probably won't be any complaints from them.

The Sport is the sedan version of the Suzuki SX4 hatchback that arrived for 2007. For those who want more of the utility of an SUV, the hatchback probably is the better choice.

But many of us prefer the sleeker look of a sedan, and the only tradeoff with the Sport vs. the SX4 hatchback is the loss of some of the extra cargo space that the hatchback offers.

The sedan is available in three versions: the base model, a midlevel model with more standard amenities, and a top-of-the-line Touring edition with such extras as a great audio system and electronic stability control.

Base models begin at $15,395 (including $625 freight), compared with $15,595 for the hatchback.

The Sport differs from the hatchback in that it is nearly 15 inches longer, has four doors instead of five, and has front-wheel drive rather than the standard all-wheel drive of the hatchback.

For now, all-wheel drive isn't available on the sedan, but its front drive should work great on snow if you happen to drive where that white stuff falls onto the roads. Generally, though, front drive is just fine for Texas.

Suzuki calls the hatchback a "crossover," a popular buzzword in today's automotive market. Perhaps the Sport should be called a "crossover sedan."

The SX4 crossover is a great little vehicle, and although its all-wheel drive doesn't give it any serious off-road capabilities, it does have seven inches of ground clearance, which is usually enough for most improved dirt roads in state and national parks.

The Sport, which Suzuki marketers seem reluctant to call a sedan, is a charming little compact that can challenge some of the segment stalwarts, including the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. It's that roomy and comfortable (or perhaps even more so), and even has a bit more power.

This vehicle technically competes in the same class as the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo and Nissan Versa, however. Those vehicles generally are lower-priced and slightly smaller than the compacts such at the Corolla and Civic.

One impression I got immediately from the Sport was how great the outward visibility is from the driver's seat. The windshield and side windows are tall, which also is a reflection of that aforementioned high roofline.

Under the hood of all SX4 Sport models is the same 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve, double-overhead-cam engine used in the hatchback. It is rated at 143 horsepower and 136 foot-pounds of torque.

The engine is connected to a five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is available for an additional $1,100.

With the automatic, which is what most consumers will choose, the Sport's EPA ratings are 23 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway. Base price with the automatic is $16,495 (including freight). With the manual, the ratings are 22/30.

Suzuki says the Sport's suspension and steering were "heavily influenced by the award-winning Suzuki Swift," a sedan no longer in production.

Included are several features that should appeal to the young tuner set, even without any available engine enhancements, which Suzuki has no plans to offer.

The car has a "rigid steel unibody underpinned by a confidence-inspiring chassis," Suzuki says, adding that the suspension was "fine-tuned in Europe to provide good stability on the highway along with crisp and responsive handling and braking, and minimal body roll."

In the front are McPherson struts. The rear has a torsion-beam suspension. Standard are stabilizer bars and KYB shock absorbers.

The car has exceptionally good ride and handling, which Suzuki attributes in part to the wide track (which also adds to roominess) and the car's 17-inch wheels and tires, which are unusually large for a car this size (this is a good thing).

Large four-wheel disc brakes with a Bosch antilock system are standard as well.

Exterior styling is geared toward the tuner crowd. The car has an "aggressive" front fascia and grille, along with a "muscular and athletic stance," the company says. The look is accentuated by a "low, rising waistline."

Other standard features - even at the base price -- include air conditioning, power windows and door locks (with remote), front seat-mounted side air bags, side-curtain air bags for front and rear seats, and the 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

For an additional $500, the Convenience package creates the Sport's midlevel model. The extra money brings a leather-wrapped steering wheel, cruise control, steering-wheel audio controls, automatic climate control, and heated outside mirrors. Total price is $15,895 with the manual transmission, and $16,995 with the automatic.

Our test vehicle was the top version, the Touring model. With manual gearbox, the Touring model is $16,895, and with the automatic, $17,995.

It includes the upgrades from the Convenience package, along with the upgraded, 380-watt audio system, which nine speakers and a six-disc CD changer; fog lights; a rear spoiler; and electronic stability control with traction control. The stability control system is not offered as stand-alone option, however.

My tester came with the manual, which was easy to shift and allowed for sporty starts. The automatic transmission, which I have tested in the hatchback model, shifts smoothly and doesn't seem to drain much power from the engine.

This car's handling is crisp, and the steering is precise, more so than might be expected of a car this small and economical. It's not a sports car, but it is a very sporty little car.

The base audio system is an AM/FM/single-CD unit with MP3 playback capability. It has four speakers.

XM satellite radio is available with either audio system, and an iPod interface is available from Suzuki dealers. It works through the radio, and the playlists and each song's information are display on the radio. Also available from dealers is a Bluetooth phone option.

With the Touring models, you can get the SmartPass keyless entry/start system.

2008 Suzuki SX4 Sport

The package: Compact, four-door, four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan.

Highlights: All new for 2008, this is the sedan version of Suzuki's popular SX4 crossover/hatchback that was introduced last year. Built in Japan for the U.S. market, it is roomy, peppy, quite reasonably priced, and fuel-efficient.

Negatives: No engine upgrade offered for those who want a sportier driving experience.

Engine: 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder.

Transmission: Five-speed manual, four-speed automatic (optional).

Power/torque: 143 horsepower/136 foot-pounds.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted, front and rear side curtain, standard.

Vehicle stability control: Standard on top model; not offered on base and midlevel versions.

Length: 177.6 inches.

Trunk capacity: 15 cubic feet.

Curb weight: 2,688 pounds (manual); 2,745 (automatic).

Fuel capacity/type: 13.2 gallons/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy: 22 miles per gallon city/30 (manual); 23 city/31 highway (automatic).

Major competitors: Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo, Nissan Versa sedans.

Base price: $15,395 with freight.

Price as tested: $16,895 with freight (Touring model with manual gearbox).

On the Road rating: 9.3 (of a possible 10).

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at chambers@star-telegram.com.