I'm not one for gimmicks, and at first glance, the Suzuki SX4 is rife with them. When it was introduced in 2007, the SX4 was the least-expensive car with all-wheel-drive. (AWD is now optional, and not as cheap as it once was.) For 2009, Suzuki is hocking the SX4 as the least-expensive car to offer a navigation system. Nice, but with aftermarket nav systems selling for as little as $100, is that enough of a reason to buy a Suzuki SX4? Read on. Base price $13,994, as-tested price $17,568, EPA fuel economy estimates 21-23 MPG city, 29-31 MPG highway.
First Glance: Let's make a deal
The Suzuki SX4 is one of those great undiscovered bargains of the automotive world. I'm not talking about the cheapest-car-with-navi thing -- the SX4 Sport's navigation system is basically a $500 Garmin unit clipped to a flip-up cover on the dashboard (a bit cheesy, though it works really well; more on that in a bit). For 2009, Suzuki has introduced a new SX4 base model that gives you power windows, mirrors and locks, antilock brakes and six airbags for just under $14,000. If you want air conditioning and a stereo, the price goes up to $15,384, but that's still a shade cheaper than a similarly-equipped Toyota Yaris sedan and several shades less than a comparably-equipped Honda Fit (though a Nissan Versa with the same stuff is about $300 cheaper).
But the cheap price isn't this car's only appeal. For one thing, the SX4 is cute as a bug's ear. Looking through my zoomed-out camera lens -- which makes the SX4 appear even shorter than it is -- I had to chuckle at the car's dimensions, with its tall cabin hemmed in by an abbreviated hood and trunk. It looks like something out of a cartoon -- a normal car that got squashed between a couple of semis. I drove the $16,434 Sport model, which gets racy body trim and big 17" alloy wheels (link goes to photo), giving it a sort of tough-runt-with-a-Napoleonic-complex look. I wanted to laugh but didn't, for fear that the car would kick me in the shins when I wasn't looking.
In the Driver's Seat: Bigger than it looks
Turns out the SX4 gets the last laugh, because it's a lot roomier on the inside than it looks from the outside. The tall cabin allows for a tall back seat -- your legs go down rather than out, so there's plenty of space. It even gets proper headrests that drop down out of the driver's view when not in use. The trunk is certainly no joke; at 15.5 cubic feet it offers more room than a mid-size Toyota Camry (although there's no trunk release on the remote key fob, which is annoying). Up front, the tall, narrow windshield made me feel like I was driving a phone booth, and the posts for the small quarter windows blocked my view around curves. Other than that, visibility was pretty good, and I grew to like the boy-in-a-bubble perspective.
Let's talk about the nav system, which is standard on the SX4 Sport. It's actually a Garmin Nuvi system mounted on a plastic flap and wired into the speaker system. It's a long reach away and the screen is pretty small, but the directions are clearly displayed, the spoken directions are easy to understand, and you can actually remove the unit and take it with you, which is bound to come in handy some time. SX4s with the Touring package get an upgraded unit with a Bluetooth speakerphone and real-time traffic, weather, gas prices, movie times and news headlines -- much more thorough than most built-in nav systems. The SX4's stereo doesn't have an audio input jack, but the Garmin has a built-in media player that reads SD cards. I copied a few MP3s onto a spare card I keep for my camera, and presto, I had a poor man's iPod.
On the Road: Big power, big fuel consumption, big fun
The SX4 is powered by a noisy 143 horsepower two-liter engine, which is a bit much for a car this small. Fuel economy has never been the SX4's strong suit: EPA figures are 22 MPG city/30 MPG for the manual transmission SX4 Sport and 22/29 for the automatic; compare that to 28/35 for an automatic Honda Fit. I averaged 30.3 MPG, which I consider just okay for a subcompact car. But that was with the 5-speed manual -- I tested an SX4 Sport with an automatic transmission last year and averaged only 26.6 MPG.
The SX4's ride is busy and bouncy, and it clunks and thumps over big bumps the way you'd expect a cheap car to do. It's good fun to drive, though -- you can tell it was designed by a company that builds motorcycles. The steering and the suspension don't have the precision of the Honda Fit or the Hyundai Accent SE -- the latter is one of my favorite cheap speedsters -- but it certainly has more power than both cars and it attacks the corners with admirable zeal. The SX4's small size and big windows make it an urban-dweller's dream: It's easy to park, it fits into spaces too small for Corollas and Civics, and it can easily pull a U-turn on narrow residential streets. Unfortunately, the SX4 sedan only offers electronic stability control on top-of-the-line Sport models with the Touring package -- odd, because it comes standard on all versions of the SX4 hatchback (known as the Crossover).
Journey's End: Likeable, even with the gimmicks
This is as good a time as any to remind you that there's more to the SX4 lineup than the base sedan and the Sport. The aforementioned SX4 Crossover offers all-wheel-drive (AWD) as a $500 option; at $17,134 that makes it the cheapest AWD car you can buy, though Subaru's excellent Impreza 2.5i -- which is a bit more of a grown-up's car -- isn't far behind at $18,190. The SX4 offers options you wouldn't expect to find in a subcompact, and at reasonable prices -- an SX4 hatchback with all-wheel-drive, automatic transmission, automatic climate control, keyless entry and ignition, cruise control, electronic stability control, Bluetooth and heated seats lists for just over $20k.
If there's anything going against the SX4, it's that (aside from the availability of all-wheel-drive) it doesn't do anything significantly better than mainstreamers like the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa, plus it's less fuel efficient. That said, the SX4 does carry a 7 year/ 100,000 mile warranty on the powertrain (engine, transmission, and the bits that make the wheels go 'round), and lower demand means you can probably negotiate a better deal than you could on a Honda, Toyota or Nissan.
Overall, I like the SX4. It's spunky, it's spirited, it's practical, and it's inexpensive. Like I said, I'm not much for gimmicks, but the SX4's gimmickry does have some substance to it. Even so, I wouldn't recommend SX4 because it's the cheapest car with a navigation system. I'd recommend it because it's a great little car. -- Aaron Gold