March 1, 2009
Suzuki is a bit player on the auto industry stage.
Its claim to fame is that the then-world's largest automaker, General Motors, once thought enough of it to purchase an equity interest.
That didn't last, and the company that makes more motorcycles than cars is back on its own.
But Suzuki can boast an accomplishment that GM can't. It sells an econocar with the security of all-wheel-drive as well as many of the things you would expect only in a much larger, much more expensive car, crossover or SUV.
That would be the SX4, offered in two varieties: A four-door hatchback called the SX4 crossover, with front- or all-wheel-drive, and a four-door sedan called the SX4 Sport, with FWD only.
We tested the crossover, which is only about a foot longer than a Honda Fit but packs a bundle of goodies without running up the sticker.
Besides AWD, SX4 offers a novel navigation system. The test vehicle had both.
A button in the rear of the center console engages automatic AWD to direct torque to all four wheels when slippage is detected or AWD lock to keep all wheels from slipping when starting out in deep snow or mud.
We encountered deep snow, and automatic AWD easily maneuvered through the piles in the driveway before tackling those in the street. A dash light tells when 2WD, AWD or AWD lock is engaged; nice because Suzuki took pains to hide the activation button.
However, the button is clearly pictured in the owner's manual under "controls," but with no hint of what page to turn to learn about using the feature and the do's and don'ts for each setting. That's cleverly hidden in the manual's "operation" section. Why?
AWD security is a major benefit in the Snow Belt and a surprise in an economy car that would be known primarily for mileage.
SX4 packs other surprise-and-delight bonuses, including standard stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes, along with side-curtain air bags. An excellent safety package to maximize protection in any car earns more kudos in a mini.
Handling benefits from stability and traction control, as well as from very good steering response, you move where the wheel is pointed without lingering.
While rather nimble in managing twists in the road, ride is at times jittery, and the suspension does a little tap dance on uneven pavement.
The SX4 is powered by a 2-liter, 142-horsepower 4-cylinder with a smooth shifting 5-speed manual. The 4 is spirited for an econocar. Yet it delivers excellent mileage, even with AWD: 21 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway. To get 30 on the highway, you have to settle for FWD.
Though AWD is the major attraction, the optional navigation system deserves a look.
While most navigation systems are too complex and hard to use and program, the screen in the Suzuki system displays three important pieces of information: current speed limit, your speed and the direction you're driving, which, unlike road names, you can see without squinting.
A warning voice also lets you know if there's congestion ahead, though not soon enough to find a detour.
But since the screen is about half the size of most, it takes more time to focus on and understand, time that could be spent looking out for other vehicles or objects approaching. And it pops out of the top of the dash far from the driver's reach. Only way it would be harder to reach is if it were bolted to the hood.
Likewise, a digital time and temperature display in the dash below the navigation screen is difficult, if not impossible, to see in daylight.
The SX4's mini dimensions are obvious when it comes to cabin room, which is a tad tight. The back seat could use more stretch space. But the cloth-seat bottoms are long and supportive to go the distance. The cargo hold will handle ample gear for two adults, and rear-seat backs fold flat and tumble forward to expand space.
The SX4 AWD crossover with navigation starts at $16,789 and comes with air, AM/FM/CD/MP3/satellite radio and power windows/locks/mirrors. Automatic, however, is a hefty $1,100 option.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at trans email@example.com.
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