Driven: 2010 Suzuki SX4 Sportback

March 15, 2010
It's quite easy to find a small car that makes sense on paper—one that's cheap, fuel-efficient, fits in a small footprint, and maneuvers easily—but it's relatively hard to find one that just feels right, in most of the ways that people who like to drive appreciate a car.

The 2010 Suzuki SX4 Sportback is one of that latter group. Although it comes up short in a few respects—like fuel economy ratings—it's quite simply a little more fun to drive than most other small hatches.

To arrive at the SX4 Sportback, Suzuki finally took the five-door hatchback body of its SX4 Crossover and mated it to the front-wheel drive powertrain and lower sport suspension of its SX4 Sport sedan. The automaker had been stubbornly offering the five-door only with the softer-riding Outback-like package, but hot-hatch fans cried foul and got their way.

The verdict? The SX4 is a blast to drive—especially if your commute includes curvy country lanes, or for that matter even just some clogged traffic arteries where maneuverability helps.

Yank the steering wheel abruptly to the side and the SX4 always responds crisply…to a degree. Push it beyond moderately hard, and the front end changes demeanor altogether allowing lots more body roll. We wish Suzuki had chosen to offer some stout anti-roll bars to help keep that in check, but until the automaker offers more power it's plenty of suspension for the engine, and surprisingly fun on tightly curved canyon roads in second and third gear.

Also, the 150-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine in the SX4 feels eager at city speeds, revving energetically. Add a nice smooth clutch takeup and a neat, clear shift linkage for the standard six-speed manual (a CVT with paddle-shifters and six simulated gears is optional) and it's entertaining.

But there are some less desirable qualities to the powertrain. The engine can feel downright lifeless below 2,000 in any of the upper gears if you're caught off guard, but it comes alive again by the time you reach the '3' on the tach. It gets boomy above 4500, so you learn to keep it in the sweet spot in the middle. Other than that, the throws of the shifter are a little long, and the aggressive tip-in for the gas pedal that makes it feel so perky at first disappoints in the end, seemingly giving 3/4 throttle at 1/4 of pedal travel.

To get the rest of the downside out of the way, the SX4 doesn't do highway very well, and even though it does hold the road surely and track very well at 70 mph and beyond, there's an ever-present fore-aft choppiness that could add to fatigue on longer rides. There was also a fair bit of road noise over coarse surfaces in our sport-suspension-equipped SportBack (to be fair, not any more than in a Honda Fit), but when the road wasn't so coarse, we noticed the almost ever-present whine from sixth gear on our test car (not fifth).

At the pump, you'll probably be able to do a lot better than the SX4's fuel economy ratings of 23 mpg city / 30 highway, indicate. Over about 230 miles in a week—a mix of weekday city errands and a longer leisurely weekend drive on two-laners—we averaged 29 mpg in the SX4. But we noticed that mileage plummeted whenever we reached Interstate speeds.

The 2010 Suzuki SX4 just looks cute. It's hard not to like almost everything about its design and what it fits in such a small package. The roofline and profile are both utilitarian and fashionable; the little down-tuck of the beltline, combined with the tall seating affords a better view out than in most vehicles its height and size. The seats are a little short and supportive, and even when properly adjusted this 6'-6" driver had plenty of legroom and headroom but felt slightly 'scooped' up and forward; you won't find a back seat as incredibly space-efficient as that of the 2010 Honda Fit, but it's just roomy enough for adults on short trips and expands for larger items (though it neither folds low or completely flat). With it up and in place, there's about 20 cubic feet—plenty for a major grocery restock in our household—plus there's a trick lower compartment in back, beneath the level cargo floor.

And there are lots of storage bins, from the one just to the left of the steering wheel, to several smaller ones just below the climate control and more yet in the center console and in each door. Interior appointments, from the door panels to the dash and center console, are made largely of hard plastic, but it doesn't have the thin, hollow feel of some vehicles; we liked the look of the patterned cloth of our test SportBack, but even after a week it was attracting all sorts of lint and dust and doesn't look like it would stay pretty for long.

At the end of a week, we were still mixed about the small front 'A-pillar' windows, which allow that unique curve and lower beltline. For this tall driver, the windows helped with visibility and weren't bothersome, but for someone seated more forward it would seem that smaller pillar would be right up near the driver's face.

Beyond the base-model five-door SX4, the Suzuki Sportback includes a sport suspension, 17-inch alloys, fog lamps, lower-body kit, and leather steering-wheel and shift-knob trim, plus automatic climate control, keyless entry, and cruise control. What makes it stand out even more from the crowd, feature-wise, is that it also includes a navigation system with a year of gas-price, weather, and news service, plus a nice-sounding eight-speaker sound system that's ready for XM satellite radio.

We love the packaging of the nav system, and the simple manual fold-up or stow-away mechanism that allows it to tuck into the top of the dash. Although the screen is rather small, the touch-screen unit has one of the nicest, highest contrast screens—and, we believe, it's still the cheapest model with a screen-based nav system.

Altogether, the price of the 2010 Sportback is $18,684, including destination and all of those features. A lower-price five-door hatch cuts out many of those features, including the sport suspension, which we thought quite ideal. To compare, a Honda Fit with electronic stability control and the navigation system (both included with the SportBack) is just below $20,000.

But again, it's tough to sum up all of the SX4's appeal in features, specs, and numbers. At least at city speeds, the SX4 tracks and handles with a secure, almost hefty that some might prefer. There's something about the way the SX4 bounds over the big bumps, with a secure, rattle-free, unflustered feel, that give it a reassuring solidity.

If you want a really well equipped, energetic, solid little car and you're not going to be irked by getting less than 30 mpg, the 2010 SX4 Sportback has a whole lot of appeal.

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