What the Hell’s a Suzuki’s SX4? I know it’s my job to know about these things, but I swear the test car greeting me upon my return from Old Blighty was the first one I’ve ever seen. If first impressions last, this tall, decidedly Japanese runabout says Subaru Forrester meets Scion xA on the suburban side of town. (In keeping with the parlance of our times, Suzuki shuns the “w” word and calls the SX4 a crossover.) A quick walk around revealed four big wheels, four big disc brakes, a Prius style double A-pillar and an AWD badge. Hmmm…? Could this sub-radar Suzuki be a sleeper?
Every other passenger vehicle in Suzuki’s domestic lineup dorkidly screams nerd; the Reno, Aerio and Forenza all look pasty, awkward and four-eyed. The almost-but-not-quite butch SX4 offers a clear break from its geeky brothers, and a much appreciated change of direction for the otherwise bland brand. The SX4’s sharp proboscis confidently displays the samurai-slash family logo. The handsomely sculpted hood is reminiscent of Audi’s latest TT. Despite its lack of an intercooler, the lower-level air intake is quite EVO-ish. Not bad at all.
From the side, the SX4’s profile offers a strange amalgamation of standard issue sedan sheetmetal and seductive designs cues lifted from a certain retro-British roadster. Clock the SX4’s blistered black plastic wheel arches and the rear wheels pushed out to the corners. From the back, black plastic wraps around the faux-chrome lower-bumper. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there’s a MINI blushing somewhere.
The SX4’s interior is resolutely lower-middle class; no effort was made to hide or disguise its inexpensive materials. And? The SX4’s designers used their plastic palette to create a cabin that’s a model of clarity and ergonomic ease. From a handsome, common sense radio head unit to funky air vents to a right-sized steering wheel, the SX4 proves that cost constriction is no barrier to good design. Sure, the helm and stick-shift are Rubbermaid, and the seats offer meager support or comfort. But this $15k vehicle is no penalty box.
Such modest money buys gadgets and gizmos aplenty: AC, six-disc in dash CD, daytime running lights, intermittent wipers, rear wiper, power locks with remote entry, power windows with driver auto-down, a exterior thermometer, four-mode trip computer, 60/40 split folding rear seat, ABS with Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), six airbags and driver selectable AWD. An old S-Class sold less for more.
The SX4’s on-demand AWD system is a particularly pukka party trick, reminiscent of Subarus of yore. For daily duty, the SX4 is a front-driver. Flip a switch near the handbrake and i-AWD kicks in. In this mode, 95% of the SX4’s torque is routed to the front wheels. Should either of the fronts lose purchase, up to 50% of the power is sent to the back wheels. If you get stuck in sand (posing for the requisite PR lifestyle surfer dude pictures), you can switch to full-time four wheel-drive and lock up the transfer case for an even split.
And if you have to split in a hurry, the SX4 is a corner carver par excellence. The base model’s blessed with fat 205 tires (the same size as a BMW 328i’s hoops) and a smartly-tuned chassis; the Sport version gains stability control (unique to this class). Surprisingly, body roll and grip are never an issue. Even better, the SX4’s rack and pinion steering is a revelation; the tiniest tiller inputs deliver an instant change of direction. Running in i-AWD I tackled my favorite corners as fast as I could in my (gulp) Subaru WRX.
And the hits keep happening. With a 2.0-liter DOHC I4 harnessing 143 scrappy little fillies, this little Suzy has some guts. To gain access to the mill’s 136 pound-feet of torque, your hand never leaves the stick shift knob but A) you’re only fighting against 2800lbs. and B) it’s fun. Short gearing ensures that the engine is constantly on the boil, while the user friendly clutch makes downshifting a breeze. OK, you can’t call a zero to sixty in 8.3 seconds car fast, but it ain’t slow neither.
There are downsides. The SX4’s ride, especially on the highway, is rocky and worrisome (blame the torture beam rear suspension). Though the Suzuki’s engine note isn’t especially dissonant, wind and engine noise are intrusive at speed. The high-pitched squeaks that tells you to buckle up, close the door and turn off the damn headlights are skull-splittingly awful. And 80mph puts over 4000rpm on the clock; no car is more in need of a sixth-gear.
For roughly the same money as a Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit or Nissan Versa, the Suzuki SX4 provides a larger, more powerful wagon — “crossover” with AWD, distinctive styling and hoonery. If Suzuki creates more driver friendly vehicles like the SX4, they’ll finally be building a brand worth remembering.
[Suzuki provided the vehicle, insurance and a tank of gas.]
Listen to JL and RF discuss the SX4 below.