Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
In its home country of Japan, Suzuki is the No. 4 automaker and occasionally jumps up to 3rd place above Honda. And it's always more popular than Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Daihatsu — at least in Japan. But the picture isn't so rosy here in the U.S. However, the tide could be turning. Suzuki says the recently redesigned SX4 is quickly becoming the company's core product. And with the public's attention shifting to smaller, less expensive cars, the 2008 Suzuki SX4 may be a worthwhile basket for the company to place its corporate eggs. Other vehicles from Suzuki, like the Forenza or XL7, are not ultra-competitive in their respective segments, so when the 2008 Suzuki SX4 turns out to be a decent little car that's long on value and short on chintz, it's a nice surprise. In Sport trim, it's also a sharp-looking little sedan, with 17-inch wheels and foglights. But the real feather in Suzuki's cap is the SX4 Road Trip Edition — a car that costs less than $16,000 but includes alloy wheels, ABS and a built-in yet portable navigation system with real-time traffic, local fuel prices, movie listings and other information thanks to MSN. (Note that trim level names have been revised for 2009 and 2010.) The navigation system is provided by Garmin, and it basically gives the SX4 luxury car features at a budget price. Thanks to that nav system, Bluetooth hands-free calling is part of the package, too.
Stylish looks and high-tech features will only carry a car so far. Despite this SX4's Sport designation, the car really doesn't deliver anything remarkable in terms of performance. Cars like the Honda Civic and Mazda 3 are more fun to drive but can be more expensive.
The Suzuki's straight-line acceleration is nothing special: Our SX4 test car got from zero to 60 in about 11 seconds in performance testing. Plus the engine is noisy under full throttle. Because the SX4's automatic transmission is only a four-speed, you may be pinning the gas pedal to the floor more often than you'd expect. The car is not painfully slow in everyday driving, as 1st gear feels very short — but that bit of initial briskness quickly fades as the 2.0-liter, 143-horsepower four-cylinder engine routed through only four gears just can't build up a very substantial head of steam. Also, the driver has no real way of controlling the shifts manually. We suspect the standard five-speed manual transmission would add a little more pep and fun to the SX4's overall character. Curiously, the manual transmission has an EPA fuel economy rating of 1 mpg less on the highway. When equipped with an automatic transmission, a front-wheel-drive version of the SX4 is rated at 23 mpg city and 31 highway — that's similar to a Mazda 3 or Nissan Versa but cars like the Honda Fit receive a slightly better estimate. Our SX4 with an automatic transmission averaged 24 miles per gallon in mixed city and highway driving.
Like the Suzuki's acceleration, the car's handling has an initial touch of sportiness but there's no follow-through. The suspension is stiff and does control body roll very well. However, the ride quality is noticeably compromised as a result. It's not terrible but the suspension tuning does translate into a moderately stiff ride. The shock absorber tuning isn't quite right either, and the SX4 feels nervous and a little unpredictable at its handling limits. Still, the 2008 Suzuki SX4 Sport gets through the slalom at 63 mph, a decent speed for an inexpensive car.
Front and rear seats are really comfortable and soft at first. The initial softness eventually feels a tad unsupportive but it takes a few hours of driving to get to that point. Because of the SX4's tall roof, headroom is very generous and makes the car feel roomier than it really is. Considering the SX4's smallish overall size, it's surprising that the interior never feels cramped and even adult backseat passengers have enough head- and legroom to be comfortable. The rear seat can also easily accommodate a rear- or forward-facing child safety seat. Getting both kids and adults in and out of that backseat is easy, as the rear doors open almost a full 90 degrees. Other than too much engine noise at full throttle, the SX4's cabin remains relatively quiet for a subcompact.
The big draw with the SX4 Sport Road Trip Edition is the standard portable navigation system. It's essentially a Garmin Nuvi that anyone could simply purchase from Best Buy, but in this case opting for the Suzuki-provided unit is worthwhile. The Nuvi is mounted inside a clever door that allows you to keep the unit connected but hidden when you're not using it. Also, the Garmin navigation aide provides services typically found in more expensive vehicles. Real-time traffic, local fuel prices, movie listings, daily news stories, local weather and a Bluetooth connection for your phone are all part of the package thanks to Garmin and an MSN subscription that costs extra once the initial three-month trial period is over. The nav system also provides a way to play digital music — the SX4 doesn't have an iPod connection or even an auxiliary jack, but you can load music onto an SD card and play it through the Suzuki's audio system. The music will automatically mute as verbal navigation instructions are given. As an added bonus, you can still remove the Garmin Nuvi for use in another car or while on foot.
Our test vehicle's keyless entry and keyless start are nice features considering the 2008 Suzuki SX4's $17,000 price tag. You can get this feature on other SX4s by choosing the Touring Package.
It's common for even inexpensive economy cars to have a host of standard safety features and the Suzuki SX4 follows suit. The Touring package adds stability control — side impact and side curtain head airbags are standard even on the base SX4. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are also standard.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Suzuki's cabin is fairly straightforward; there's nothing fancy or special about the design. Still, most features and controls are logically placed. The quality of materials used for the SX4's interior is considerably better than what you'd find in other affordable Suzukis like the Reno. The gradual jump to better-looking and -feeling interiors began with the Grand Vitara, continued with the XL7 and now serves the 2008 Suzuki SX4 quite well. For example, the small knobs that control the radio have a soft, rubberized texture and the faux chrome accents that run along the center stack look and feel nice, too.
Who should consider this vehicle
Anyone who wants a new car, needs a navigation system but wants to keep the price well below $20,000.
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