2009 Suzuki SX4 Sport

Suzuki exemplifies everything good about being small: as a niche automaker, it competes successfully against much bigger companies. A strong brand character, consistent throughout the model lineup, appeals to value-conscious customers looking for versatile, fun-to-drive vehicles.

The SX4 Sedan, Sport, and Crossover are three rather different cars that share the same compact platform. The entry-level Sedan competes against products in the sub-fourteen thousand dollar range with a high level of standard safety, comfort and convenience features, and a seven year/100,000-mile fully transferable warranty.

The five-door Crossover adds additional cargo versatility, available all-wheel drive, and a standard navigation system for customers who carry large items such as bicycles, skis and snowboards, and who require some all-terrain, all-weather capability.

The Sport shares the Sedan's four-door configuration, but with bigger wheels and tires, four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel antilock braking, a sport suspension, and standard navigation system. With a base price under sixteen-thousand dollars, it's a steal.

Collaboration With Garmin

The SX4's standard navigation system is the product of a collaboration between Suzuki and Garmin. A small, pop-up screen at the top of the center stack displays maps and points of interest. The 4.3-inch touchscreen display is integrated into the car's audio system, so directions are broadcast through the SX4's speakers.

The map is a little small and harder to read than larger displays on pricier systems. But it's unique for any automaker to offer standard navigation in less than a luxury car. Since it's integrated into the audio system, the driver has verbal commands as a backup: a distinct advantage over aftermarket products.

Buyers can upgrade the system to add Microsoft network functions including real-time traffic, stock quotes, local event listings and a gas station finder. The upgrade also adds Bluetooth hands-free phone technology, on-screen and audible text messaging.

Sporty, Not Thirsty Engine

Suzuki's two-liter, 143-horsepower engine gives the SX4 Sport performance comparable to its motorcycles. The high-revving, high-compression engine has excellent low end power, especially in the critical twenty-to-fifty mile-per-hour range.

At the same time, the SX4 has no problem passing other vehicles on the highway, or making the occasional evasive maneuver at speed. Seventeen-inch wheels give the sedan a big stable footprint for a positive on-center feel.

The engine incorporates a lot of components normally reserved for bigger, higher-performance blocks: chain-driven camshafts and a forged steel crankshaft among them. It isn't important to know how these components work; simply understand that they add durability, and reduce expensive maintenance procedures after fifty thousand miles.

The block and pistons are aluminum to minimize weight. Despite its 10.5:1 compression ratio, the engine runs fine on 87-octane gas.

A five-speed manual transmission on the test car has a light clutch with wide enough gear range to make it practical for city driving. Though I appreciate the drawbacks of a manual-transmission in urban traffic, the gearbox adds a lot of character to the peppy SX4 Sport. I'd recommend it.

Power rack-and-pinion steering has enough assist at low speeds, without too much play on the highway. The chassis feels balanced going through cloverleaf turns at speed. Making quick lane changes at speed is a non-issue.

Standard four-wheel disc brakes stop the car quickly on wet or snow-covered roads. Discs are easier to service than drums, especially for those living in northern climates. Having used a sledge hammer to whack rust ridges off old drum brakes, I can vouch for the fact that replacing drum shoes is not a fun way to spend the weekend.

Ergonomic Interior

Except for lacking a center console bin, the SX4 has an almost perfect interior. Adults will be surprised by the amount of head, leg and hip room in the out-board second-row seating positions.

The manual seats are easy to adjust with adequate lower lumbar support. Audio and climate control knobs on the center stack are intuitive, and easy to reach from either front seating position. A twelve-volt power point on the base of the center stack allows passengers to recharge electronic devices on the go. Two shelves below the climate controls hold compact discs or other small items.

A technology package on the test car adds redundant audio and Bluetooth controls on the steering wheel, fog lamps and cruise control. The technology package also upgrades the standard sixteen-inch wheels to seventeen-inch rims and adds an aero body kit.

Side mirrors do a good job of eliminating blind spots to the side and rear of the car. The SX4 has a strange A-pillar configuration: the pillars extend to the front of the car: triangular glass pieces fill the gap between the pillars and side windows.

The arrangement doesn't make much sense to me except as a money-saving measure. The pillars are annoying because they interrupt the driver's forward vision, but they don't create any blind spots.

All four doors have bottle holders that will hold small water bottles. Two cupholders up front and one in the rear are also large enough for water bottles. Though the test car doesn't have a sunroof, there's enough ambient light in back to keep second-row passengers happy.

Spacious Trunk

A spacious trunk with a pass-through can easily hold groceries and luggage. With the rear seatbacks folded flat it's possible to shoe a bike frame in back. But passengers who want to carry their bicycles on a regular basis would be much better served by the five-door crossover.

Standard Safety

All models come standard with front, side and side curtain airbags, electronic stability program, traction control, antilock brakes, and a tire pressure monitoring system.

MSRP on the test car is $16,539, not including a $695 destination charge. The peppy SX4 Sport is ready to test drives at Suzuki dealerships nationwide.

2009 Suzuki SX4 Sport FWD

Likes: An affordable, fun-to-drive compact sedan with standard navigation and electronic stability program. A seven-year, fully-transferable warranty helps the SX4 to maintain its value.

Dislikes: Odd A-pillar design disrupts the driver's forward vision. A center console bin would add valuable storage space.

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