Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Suzuki SX4

The 2007 Suzuki SX4 takes over for the Suzuki Aerio SX as the most affordable all-wheel-drive car sold in the U.S. It derives from an established overseas model, the Swift, and boasts a generous list of standard safety features.

Despite a roomy interior and good safety ratings, the quirky-looking Aerio SX four-door hatchback never caught on in the U.S. The SX4 is a less distinctive but more athletic looking little four-door, five-seat hatchback that should compete well with the current crop of subcompact and compact cars. Its 16-inch alloy wheels help the SX4 look like more than an econobox.

The SX4's interior improves somewhat over that of the Aerio, with more variation in the color pallet. The backseat is more than workable for an adult, both in headroom and legroom. The backseat is split, 60/40, and can be both folded flat and tumbled forward to free cargo space. Even with the backseat raised, the cargo volume is a respectable 9.5 cubic feet — 22 cubic feet with the seats folded.

Under the Hood
The SX4 uses a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 143 horsepower. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual; a four-speed automatic is optional. All-wheel drive is standard with either gearbox. Suzuki estimates the gas mileage as 24/29 mpg (city/highway) with the manual transmission and 24/30 mpg with the automatic.

The SX4's safety feature complement includes four-wheel-disc antilock brakes; frontal, side impact and side curtain-type airbags; and, with the optional Premium package, an electronic stability system.
The 2007 Suzuki SX4 AWD is a small hatchback station wagon designed for urban commuting. But we also drove it long distances on the highway, where its performance was competent, but less than thrilling.

Still, my assistant, Ria Manglapus, and I gave it thumbs-up.

"It's a fun little car," said Ria, who was able to fit her two sons and mother into the SX4 without anyone complaining about comfort. "It just needs a sixth gear for highway driving."

She's right. In the top gear of the SX4's five-speed manual transmission, the wagon's two-liter, in-line four-cylinder, 143-horsepower engine whines at maximum legal speeds of 65 and 70 mph. But the car remains stable and always manages to change lanes safely. But highway running clearly is not its forte. The city is where the little SX4 shines.

At urban street speeds of 25 to 40 mph, it's zippy. It easily moves through city traffic. It is agile enough to stay out of the way of big delivery and construction trucks, even when the drivers of those behemoths seem intent on blocking the SX4's path and squishing it and everything else in its subcompact category.

As a result, city driving in the SX4 is enjoyable. At a base price of $14,999, the car is cheap enough to free you of the anxiety associated with driving high-end automobiles in downtown areas. Many of you know the feeling: "Stay away from my Lexus! You're too close to my Mercedes-Benz! If you scratch my Cadillac, if you bump my BMW, you're gonna pay."

In comparison, driving the SX4 is akin to strolling a boulevard sidewalk in a favorite pair of sneakers. They feel good, look good. You wouldn't deliberately scuff or muddy them. But you wouldn't have a heart attack if you did.

That does not mean the SX4 is a disposable car. In fact, it's rather classy -- probably the best-designed, best-built, best-looking automobile Suzuki has brought to America since it set up shop in this country in 1963.

Exterior design is cute, attractive enough to draw affectionate smiles. The interior is simple, yet elegant. And it's big enough -- as Ria so amply demonstrated with nuclear and extended family members -- to comfortably seat five people.

If Suzuki could add "best-engineered" to the SX4's commendable list of "bests," the car would be a solid, all-around winner.

Here's the problem: It's no big deal to lack a sixth gear if the vehicle in question is of suitable weight. The SX4's problem is that it's a little tank. At a factory weight of 2,904 pounds, it is almost as heavy as many mid-size automobiles, which is too heavy for a car in the subcompact class.

The excess fat is in the SX4's three-way all-wheel-drive system, which can be locked into full four-wheel-drive for better traction, adjusted for automatic wheel-to-wheel power shifts in all-wheel-drive, or allowed to operate in front-wheel-drive only. Choice is wonderful. But so much choice in a small economy car is unwarranted and harmful to something that really matters in this league -- fuel economy.

For example, running in full four-wheel-lock, the SX4 averages 23 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. In front-wheel-drive only, it averages 24 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway. While those numbers would be acceptable, perhaps commendable in larger vehicles, they are decidedly subpar in a subcompact model.

Yet, the SX4 remains a worthy competitor in this segment. It is loaded with standard equipment -- four-wheel disc brakes with antilock protection, side air bags, front and rear head air bags, power windows and locks, a four-speaker MP3 audio system, and a transferable 100,000-mile or seven-year warranty to help support resale value. It is well-built and affordable. For many city dwellers, especially those living on tight budgets, it's a good deal.

Nuts & Bolts 2007 Suzuki SX4 AWD

Complaints: The little car is too heavy. A simple all-wheel-drive system in which power automatically shifts from slipping to gripping wheels would have been more suitable for this one.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The SX4 performs beautifully in all three categories in city driving. But it has the finesse of a little pig on the highway.

Head-turning quotient: Many positive nods towards this one. Someone at Suzuki finally has learned something about styling.

Vehicle design/layout: The SX4 is a front-engine, all-wheel-drive, subcompact economy wagon with four side doors and a rear hatch. The all-wheel-drive system can be adjusted three ways: full four-wheel-drive, automatic all-wheel-drive and front-wheel drive. There are two trim levels -- the tested Base model and the better-equipped Sport.

Engine/transmission: The SX4 comes with a standard two-liter, 16-valve, in-line four-cylinder engine that develops 143 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 136 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. The engine is linked to a five-speed manual transmission.

Capacities: There is seating for five. With rear seats up, cargo capacity is 38.1 cubic feet. With rear seats down, it's 54 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 11 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: Our best highway mileage came in front-wheel-drive mode at 29 miles per gallon. Our worst was in full four-wheel-drive mode at 26 mpg.

Safety: Four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Front-passenger side air bags, and front and rear head air bags are standard.

Price: Base price on the tested Suzuki SX4 is $14,999. Dealer's invoice price on the base model is $14,399. Price as tested, including a $595 destination charge, is $15,594. Dealer's price as tested is $14,994. Prices supplied by Suzuki, http://www.edmunds.com, and http://www.cars.com, an affiliate of The Washington Post.

Purse-strings note: The Suzuki SX4 is the most affordable all-wheel-drive vehicle currently on sale in America. But in the overall subcompact car category, it's surrounded by tough competitors, including the Chevrolet Aveo, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris and Subaru Impreza.
Kia and Hyundai have loudly made inroads into the US auto market recently, but Suzuki also is attempting to establish a bigger presence.

Consider today's test car, the 2007 SX4. Parents sometimes ask what to buy for their kids. From now on, this will be one of the cars I suggest.

First, at $16,000, I can't find a less expensive all-wheel-drive car. Second, it is chock full of air bags. And third, the blend of modest performance and utility is just fine for driving in New England weather conditions.

The road suitability is mostly because the car comes equipped with a three-level system called i-AWD (intelligent all-wheel drive). The first level powers only the front wheels, appropriate for normal running and to save fuel. True full-time AWD systems use more gas.

But on a slippery highway or back road, click into AWD Auto. It monitors wheel slip and sends power where you need it most -- fore or aft -- and operates in front-wheel drive only under normal driving conditions.

If you need to slog through deeper snow or require traction in getting to a backroad venue -- or you just don't have time to shovel out in the morning before work -- there's another option: AWD Lock. It delivers 30 to 50 percent of the power to the rear, but all four wheels are always working. It cuts out at 36 miles per hour.

Even as I write about the SX4's features, I have to keep reminding myself that it's a $16,000 car. So it's got to be cheap, right? Not at all. True, the seats aren't leather, there's no voice announcing when to make a left turn, and if your steering wheel is cold, you wear gloves.

But the SX4 is roomy, particularly for four passengers, and with a high roofline it has the spacious feel of some far larger cars.

The textured dash slopes gently toward the driver's compartment and features a center control pod, with a brushed metal-look plastic that nicely hides any cost savings. The knobs and buttons for audio and climate control are easily manipulated. And a radio/CD player with MP3 capability is standard.

The car is powered by a 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder engine that produces 143 horsepower and 136 lb.-ft. of torque. Four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmissions are also available. Understand that you are not going drag racing in this car, and you won't win the Mount Washington Auto Road climb. You will, however, roll just fine as long as you don't expect to beat a Subaru WRX Sti from a red light.

You will also need to anticipate when it's time to pass another car, because the SX4 tends to run out of oomph at somewhere just above 4,000 r.p.m. It is stiffly stable on the road and sits firm, owing largely to antiroll bars front and rear. There is a tendency to oversteer, but it's fairly benign.

Outside, the nose is short and raked backward rather aggressively so that the view from the inside reveals little of the hood. The windshield rises long and fast. From there, the SX4 turns into a small station wagon -- it has a flat roof with rails that lead to a rather sudden drop-off at a chopped rear gate.

Standard safety equipment includes ABS and driver and passenger front and side bags, and curtain bags front and rear. Move up to the SX4 Sport package to add electronic stability and traction control. It's $1,000 well spent, plus you get other goodies, such as an upgraded sound system with a six-CD changer.

Other standard gear includes a 60/40 split folding rear seat, power windows/locks/mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels, and remote keyless entry. There's also a seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

The SX4 is a good buy.

No comments: