Friday, April 13, 2007

DRIVEN: 2007 Suzuki SX4

Story by Mark Atkinson
Photos Courtesy Suzuki Canada

Suzuki has been making some very big headway recently with the introduction of its new Grand Vitara and offered-everywhere-but-here Swift. The positive reviews just keep coming.

Now, the company has taken its aging Aerio out to pasture and replaced it with the SX4, a vehicle designed in a joint venture with FIAT, that aims to appeal to more than just the, ahem, decidedly female customer base of its predecessor. That’s immediately apparent with Suzuki’s new viral marketing campaign that sees the little SX4 play the modern equivalent of a knight’s steed in the very clever ‘Wolfboy’ choose-your-own-adventure online movie (

While the SX4 follows the Aerio’s path of being a tall-yet-compact four-cylinder hatchback with optional all-wheel-drive, the former is pitched as more of a diminutive SUV alternative versus the latter’s city-based roots. A generous ride height, matte-grey plastic fenders, a roof rack and tall-profile tires means the SX4 emits some off-road signals, although lower-range models come exclusively with front-wheel drive.

However, all-wheel drive becomes available when you start climbing the price ladder. While at first glance it appears that the system is typical of mild AWD systems – i.e. off until you need it, then with a heavy front bias – which is true. However, the SX4 offers drivers a couple neat options. The first is to turn the system off completely, which improves gas mileage when you don’t need it. The second is the ability to ‘lock’ the power into a 50:50 split at lower speeds, giving the car some impressive traction is lousy conditions.

This came in extremely handy as we had our JLX tester during the first major storm of the season around Toronto, dumping close to a foot of snow and slush over a two or three day period. Even with the stock all-season tires, with the AWD locked, the SX4 proved to be a little tank, unstoppable in the aftermath and completely confidence inspiring. In fact, if you’re in a mood to play, the SX4 proves to be a good partner as power-on slides out of slow corners are simply a tip of the gas pedal away. Highly entertaining.

Part of that confidence came from the car’s powertrain, which is really quite impressive. While the 2.0-litre four-cylinder only puts out 143hp @ 5,800 rpm and 136 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm, that’s still one of the most powerful base engines available in its price range. And, paired with the low-geared five-speed manual transmission, the SX4 is decidedly sprightly. The engine is eager to rev, and the relatively low torque peak provides some much-needed grunt around town. While it’s difficult to comment on the clutch feel as we drove the car exclusively with big winter boots, it was progressive enough to not bunny hop away from traffic lights. And the shifter was more agricultural than your average Honda, but well within the spirit of Suzuki’s offering.

The downside of such peppy low-speed response is a highway ride that’s especially hectic. Cruising along with the speed of traffic on Highway 401 will see the tach needle hovering at 4,000 rpm, and given the SX4’s rough-and-ready nature, most of that noise gets transmitted into the cabin. This is not a continent-crushing GT, especially given the car’s short wheelbase and torsion-beam rear suspension.

The other main area that Suzuki has improved is its seating position, especially for taller drivers. Piloting the Aerio would see steering wheel plunked in the drivers’ lap with little or not room to push the seat backwards to gain more room. While the SX4, like most modern Euro-designed small cars, has very upright seating with tons of headroom, there’s a much better relationship between the ‘larger’ drivers and the major controls.

And it’s amazing what you get in the way of controls and materials in a vehicle that’s priced so competitively. As with the Grand Vitara, the SX4 doesn’t make you feel like you’ve spent your hard-earned money on a penalty box, with an above average quality to the dash, door panels and HVAC controls. However, the SX4’s radio and display are too small and dim to read properly, especially when wearing sunglasses, and the buttons to change the radio’s source are fiddly and difficult to distinguish from one another.

Still, the SX4 is one of those rare cars that you enjoy despite its flaws. Rather than wishing for it to meld to your driving style, you adjust your driving style to suit its habits. Once you connect with it, you’ll be amazed at how eager and sturdy it is when you need it.

Thankfully, as hinted before, the SX4 will not hurt your wallet when it comes time to purchase. The ‘base’ two-wheel-drive manual-transmission version starts at a $15,995, while a fully-loaded all-wheel-drive automatic JLX with ESP (electronic stability program) comes to $23,595, which is only $100 more than a very-base-model Subaru Impreza wagon. Our manual-transmission AWD JLX tester came to a reasonable $21,495 – save the money from the power-sapping four-speed auto and forget the ESP, especially given the regular car’s abilities.

And the SX4 will start to build more street cred in the next year or so as Suzuki is using it to step up to the World Rally Championship in a 300-horsepower turbocharged version. Oh, how we long for the days of homologation specials… but the regular version is still a great place to start.

No comments: