Looking at new car prices, it seems as though $17,500 doesn't buy much anymore.

It also seems that Suzuki is aware of this, as its Suzuki Aerio SX is the cheapest all-wheel-drive car you can buy

Look at these numbers: $17,500 buys a 145-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive, five seats, five doors, a tilt steering wheel, anti-lock brakes, keyless entry, air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control, fog lamps, rear spoiler, and a nifty AM/FM/CD audio system with in-dash 6-CD changer. Throw in a 7-year/100,000 mile warranty along with EPA fuel economy ratings of 24 mpg city, 28 mpg highway and it seems like a real bargain.

Then try living with it

It wasn't the test vehicle's screaming yellow color that put me off. Nor the Suzuki's styling. Despite the tall door sills and tiny tires, I liked the Aerio SX's offbeat wagon-like proportions.

It's just that this car felt cheaper than it was.

The front driver's seat cushion rocked noticeably. Twin rattles rattled my nerves. A tinny stereo strangled any sound that came from it. Then there were the sounds coming from under the hood and from under the tires: lots of it.

But I had to remember that its more refined competition, in the form of the Subaru Impreza or the all-wheel-drive versions of the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe, all come at higher prices.

Maybe then I can excuse the Aerio's performance.

The 2-liter all-aluminum double-overhead-cam engine needs constant prodding from the driver to keep the revs up, which is where the power is. The engine felt like less than its 145 horsepower rating, but that's due to the all-wheel-drive system.

The all-wheel-drive system is called QuadGrip. It uses a transfer case that pushes up to half of the Aerio's power to the rear. Otherwise, the car works as a front-driver.

While the system only works when needed, the added weight makes the vehicle feel a lot less nimble than its front-wheel-drive cousin. Yet the body still heels over quickly in corners.

Why one would want all-wheel-drive in this vehicle is a puzzle. The ride height is a low 5.9 inches, meaning that on snowy unplowed roads, this car could get stuck very easily.

The seats were chair-high and firm, albeit a bit too much. And a center console bin would be a nice touch.

But give credit to Suzuki for trying to give the inexpensive materials used in the Aerio's interior a funky look. Of course, you might not appreciate the result.

The instrument cluster suffers the most, with a narrow pointed opening housing a digital speedometer, bar graph tachometer and tiny fuel gauge that's difficult to read. The temperature is handled by an idiot light that stays on until the temperature warms up.

Of course, while this car stands apart for its quirkiness and low price, it also excels at fuel ec onomy. A mixed driving loop returned 24 mpg, the highest fuel economy rating I've ever gotten with an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

Still, there are so many wonderful all-wheel-drive crossover SUVs that can be had for just a little more money.

And none of them are banana yellow.