Game On

The Newbie

The Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa make up the new subcompact B-segment. Now they're joined by Suzuki's new 2.0-liter, all-wheel-drive SX4. And it looks ready for action. Giorgetto Giugiaro's Italdesign studio shaped the profile with wraparound taillights and rear quarter windows giving the stubby four-seater some depth and expanse. Stoking the sport crossover intentions, the windshield features a sweeping rake that berths two fixed-sail windows just ahead of the A-pillar. Odd from the outside, this design element proves hazardous on the inside. More later.

I'm also not feelin' the roof rails and plastic cladding along the side skirts and fender flares. I get the active lifestyle marketing intent, but search the web for an image of the SX4 2.0S, a more street-level, JDM-only model (of course), to see what Suzuki needs to offer American enthusiasts next time around.

'Most affordable all-wheel drive' forms the SX4 marketing push and, with a price expected south of $15,000 for the base model, it seems reasonable. An electro-mechanical clutch system in front of the rear diff regulates power to the back wheels. Before setting out for some of inland San Diego's twisty canyon roads, I reach for AWD Lock on the selector just below the e-brake.

Also offered is 2WD (read: front-wheel drive) and AWD Auto, which sends anywhere from zero to 50 percent power to the rears. But 'Lock' just sounds right. Sad, then, that Lock directs between 30 to 50 percent power aft, but only under 36mph. The system reverts to Auto beyond that, making Lock the best option for slow crawls up to the mountain lodge.

Hard and malicious cornering will catch the system out and spin a little front tire. But it's not easy and an upgrade from the 205/60 Bridgestone Turanza rubber should quell that tendency. Electronic Stability Control (standard on our XSport trim tester) and four-wheel disc brakes (unheard of in this segment) also keep any ill-advised tarmac rally aspirations on a short leash. And while we can all accept the bean-counter rationale for rear torsion beam suspension (almost a given in this class), I wonder whether the all-wheel drive resents having to work with this ageing blue-collar componentry.

Before laying eyes on the SX4, I had plans for the 2.0-liter, dual-cam engine. I envisioned five-digit rpm forcing cheeks toward ears, yanking me up to a screaming Hayabusa-like redline, then a shrill and raspy voice slapping me around a bit for good measure. So I sulked a bit when I saw the tach top out at 8000rpm, even more when I learned to keep it under 6K. Beyond that, things start to chatter and buzz with the agitation of an angry reciprocating assembly.

To its credit, the motor pulls smoothly through its midrange, peaking with 143bhp at 5800rpm, and reaching its twisty sweet spot at 3500rpm, when it puts down 136lb-ft. The five-speed gearbox feels firm, the gates slotted and solid. On clear roads, I would prefer more clutch pressure. Trapped in San Diego's evening traffic, I'm grateful for the lighter touch.

Inside, the SX4 offers an intuitive layout of gauges, climate and audio system controls with minimal fuss or knob-twisting. Sure, the dash and trim are textured plastic and faux-luminum, but the simple two-tone color scheme is nice. It's clean, low maintenance and you won't worry when your snowboard bindings catch a side panel.

When it's time to buy, get the XSport package. The leather steering wheel with integrated audio controls (for the six-disc changer included in the deal) makes it worth it. The leather tiller complements the surprisingly direct feedback you get from the power rack-and-pinion steering.

The seats aren't bolstered for charging curves and withstanding lateral g-forces, but they're comfortable enough. Even after two hours of driving, bum and back are pleasantly free from fatigue. The seats do offer a nice angle and visibility, but can't compensate for those funky sail windows and the additional pillar. That extra post - I'll call it the 'A2' pillar - creates a fantastic blind spot, which becomes especially interesting on quick left-handers with oncoming traffic.

Even the engineering corps knows it's a flaw. Stepping out of the car, a Suzuki engineer asked for my impression. I raised a finger towards the A2 pillar and almost started to speak when he dropped his head with an apologetic smile. "Yes, a big problem," he said, "we know."

It's a significant design error, but not a deal breaker. You learn to crane your neck forward a little bit approaching those sweepers. It's liveable, especially when you consider the bargain on offer. A five-speed SX4 in XSport trim (which also adds keyless entry, subwoofer, fog lamps and cruise control) rings in at $16,500 MSRP. The six airbags and seven-year/100,000-mile, fully transferable warranty with no deductible all come as standard.

But that kind of money also gets you into a Honda Fit Sport, a car that, on paper at least, loses to the SX4's bigger engine, four-wheel disc brakes, and two additional drive wheels. On pavement though, the Fit's taut composure (not to mention those magic seats and ice-cool, FIA-spec paddle shifters (not sure about that FIA part, actually) holds the edge.

The Suzuki's all-wheel drive should prove a big draw in this segment, though, along with its determined motor, transmission, and business-first accommodations. The SX4 has come to play, whether downtown or overground, and not a moment too soon.

2007 suzuki SX4
Estimated price: under $15,000 (base) to $16,500 (XSport)EngineEngine code: J20Type: In-line four, aluminum block and headValvetrain: DOHC, four valves per cylinderDisplacement: 1995ccBore x stroke: 84mm x 90mmCompression ratio: 10.5:1Horsepower: 143bhp @ 5800rpmTorque: 136lb-ft @ 3500rpmDrivetrainLayout: Transverse front engine, all-wheel driveTransmission: five-speed manual/four-speed autoSuspensionFront: MacPherson struts, anti-roll barRear: Torsion beam live axle, anti-roll barBrakesFront: 11.4-in. vented rotors, two-pot sliding calipersRear: 10-in. solid rotors, single-pot, sliding calipersExternal DimensionsOverall length: 162.8-in.Overall width: 69.1-in.Overall height: 63.2-in.Wheelbase: 98.4-in.Track: 59.1-in. (f)/58.9-in. (r)Curb weight (lbs): 2800-2855 (manual), 2877-2932 (auto)Wheels And TiresWheels: 16 x 6.5 five-spoke, cast aluminumTires: 205/60R16 Bridgestone Turanza EL4002007 suzuki SX4

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