Small high-value cars have always been a Korean stronghold -- but now there's a Japanese car breathing down the Koreans' necks. Suzuki's new SX4 delivers space, safety, value, a long warranty and a high-fun-to-drive factor, plus something unique -- all-wheel-drive -- all for an unbelievable $15,594 (base and as-tested price). Alas, the SX4 has an Achilles' heel: Fuel economy, with EPA estimates of 23 MPG city/28 MPG highway, is unbecoming to a small car. Even so, the all-new Suzuki SX4 is a pint-sized force to be reckoned with.
First glance: Rising above mediocrity
Driving the Japanese-designed and Japanese-built SX4 makes me wonder why Suzuki put their future in the hands of these aging Korean designs when their own engineers are clearly capable of producing excellent cars. The SX4 is brilliantly packaged, brilliant to drive, and it's a smokin' deal -- not only is it the least expensive all-wheel-drive (AWD) car on the US market, but it's packed with value. Four wheel antilock disc brakes, side curtain airbags, air conditioning, power everything, CD/MP3 player -- all this for just a shade under $15,600 including destination charge. That puts the SX4 on a footing with comparably equipped Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio hatchbacks, neither of which offer AWD. Like the Koreans, the SX4's powertrain is covered by a 100,000 mile warranty, though it extends 7 years instead of the Koreans' 10.
In the Driver's Seat: Outstanding value, outside and in
Before we talk about the inside, let's talk a bit more about the outside: My SX4 test car, pictured here, complete with body-color mirrors, alloy wheels, aluminum-look body trim and roof rails, was the base model, with no options whatsoever. Hard to believe, eh? There's also an SX4 Sport with aluminum roof rails, fog lights, and features I wouldn't expect in a car priced this low: Proximity key, automatic climate control, 6-disc CD changer, and electronic stability control. The base car is well enough equipped -- cruise control was the only feature I missed, and it's optional -- but with the Sport priced just $1,400 more, why bother buying the base model?
The SX4 is small, just a tad bigger than a Honda Fit. Not that you'd know it from the inside: The tall roof makes the front seat feel like St. Paul's Cathedral. Vision is good, though the two forward pillars sometimes block visibility around sharp corners (link goes to photo). The back seat sits high off the floor, yielding lots of legroom despite the SX4's short length. If you're sadistic enough to put three passengers in back, the SX4 offers them all shoulder belts and tall shingle-style headrests that drop down out of the driver's view when not in use. You'll also find LATCH child seat anchors at all three positions. Need to haul freight? The seats flip and fold forward to give the SX4 more cargo room than a Ford Explorer SUV.
On the Road: Lots of fun, but not too frugal
The SX4's AWD system delivers power to the front wheels and automatically feeds it to the rears as slippage occurs. A console switch disables the system or locks it in four-wheel-drive.
The SX4 has one major weak spot: fuel economy. The big engine, low gearing and the weight of the all-wheel-drive system -- at 2,900 lbs, the SX4 is heavier than all of its rivals -- takes its toll on mileage. Even with AWD switched off, I averaged just 24.4 MPG in mixed driving. Compare that to the 25+ MPG I averaged in an automatic Pontiac G5 and 31+ MPG in a stick-shift Honda Fit. EPA MPG estimates are 23 city/28 highway (manual), 24/30 (automatic) -- compare that to 30/34 for the manual Nissan Versa, 33/38 for the manual Fit, and 30/40 for the automatic Honda Civic, a much bigger car. One bright spot: The SX4's small 11 gallon tank makes fill-ups cheap, if a bit too frequent.
Journey's End: Despite low MPG, this is the car I'd buy
But the competition is fierce. My two favorites from Japan are the Honda Fit and the Nissan Versa. They trounce the SX4 for fuel economy, they are surprisingly inexpensive for Japanese cars, and with proper care both will outlive your average desert tortoise. The Kia Rio5 hatchback is the SX4's main rival from Korea; it's more economical and strong on safety, plus its ridiculously inexpensive. (The Accent is a good car too, but it isn't available as a 5-door hatchback.) All of these cars have one common disadvantage, though: They don't offer all-wheel-drive.
Even if they did, I'd still take the Suzuki SX4. It's better looking, more fun to drive, and has much more personality. Would if the fuel economy were better; of course at the SX4's price, you can afford a few extra trips to the gas station. I'd love to see a version of the SX4 with a smaller engine and front-wheel-drive, as I'm sure it'd get better gas mileage. Suzuki offers a diesel version of the SX4 in other countries, though I doubt we'll be seeing that here. No worries; I'll take the 2007 Suzuki SX4 just as it is. -- Aaron Gold