The Good: Price, improved ergonomics and handling, excellent warranty
The Bad: Lagging fuel economy, mediocre interior with no fold-down rear seats
The Bottom Line: A big step up for Suzuki, but it's no Honda
Why buy a Suzuki (SZKMF) when you can go with a better-known manufacturer of small, front-wheel-drive cars, such as Honda (HMC) or Toyota (TM)? The main reasons used to be the low price and a good warranty, and those are still important selling points. But lately Suzuki has been improving the quality, features, and driving characteristics of its cars. The new '08 Suzuki SX4 Sport sedan is a case in point.
There are now two distinctly different versions of the SX4. Last year, Suzuki introduced a hatchback, whose main selling point is that it's probably the cheapest four-wheel-drive vehicle on the U.S. market, with a $15,895 starting price for a car with a stick shift and at $16,995 with an automatic transmission. By contrast, the main attraction of the new sport sedan—especially with a four-speed stick shift like the one in my test car—is that it's fun to drive. Suzuki ambitiously compares the SX4 Sport to such popular models as the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra, and Toyota Corolla.
Can a Suzuki match up to such rivals? The SX4 Sport certainly equals or undercuts them on price. Moreover, at the MSRP the rival models are stripped down, but even the base-model Suzuki ($15,395) comes standard with power accessories, air-conditioning, tire pressure monitors, antilock brakes, 17-in. alloy wheels, and a sport-tuned suspension, as well as safety gear such as front, side, and side curtain airbags, and antilock brakes with brake force distribution.
The SX4 Sport's price remains relatively low as you load up on additional features. The Convenience package includes such equipment as steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, heated outside mirrors, and cruise control, and only raises the bottom line to $15,895 for a stick shift and $16,995 for an automatic. Even the top-of-the-line Touring model—with an automatic transmission and such additional features as a nine-speaker audio system with a six-CD changer, a rear spoiler, and a keyless entry system with a push-button starter—goes for just $17,995.
So far, so good, but there are clear tradeoffs. Fuel efficiency lags, partly because the SX4 Sport with a Convenience package and automatic transmission weighs 2,855 lb., more than most of its rivals. With a stick shift, the SX4 sedan is rated to get 22 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway, rising to 23 mpg/31 mpg with an automatic transmission. In 187 miles of mixed driving, I got 25.3 mpg.
The Suzuki's mileage rating is equal to that of the Mazda3, but falls well behind the '08 Civic (25 mpg city/36 mpg highway) and '08 Corolla (26/35). Even the slightly heavier '08 Nissan Sentra, rated at 25/33, does better than the Suzuki.
Another big negative about the SX4 is Suzuki's iffy quality ratings. The Suzuki brand came in next-to-last in J.D. Power's 2007 Vehicle Dependability Study (BusinessWeek.com, 8/9/07). Granted, that study measures the dependability of 2004 models and Suzuki's dependability has probably improved since then. But the company also came in eighth-from-last, and well below average, in J.D. Power's 2007 Initial Quality Study, which assessed problems in the first 90 days of ownership of 2007 models.
Suzuki tries to offset doubts about the quality of its vehicles by offering a seven-year/100,000-mile power train warranty that's one of the best in the business. Repair costs are fully covered, and the warranty is transferable to a new owner.
There's also a 36,000-mile/three-year warranty that fully covers even small repairs—like, say, the dome light breaking.
The SX4 Sport sedan has only been on the market since September, so it's too early to know for sure how it will do in the marketplace. But Suzuki has plans for a big expansion (BusinessWeek.com, 9/28/07) in the U.S., hoping to nearly double its overall sales to 190,000 units by 2010.
The SX4 and the new XL7, an inexpensive sport-utility vehicle built in Canada in partnership with General Motors (GM), are key elements in the plan.
Behind the Wheel
I hated the Suzuki Aerio, the previous hatchback version of the SX4, which I thought had a noisy engine, crummy interior, and lackluster design. By comparison, the SX4 Sport comes as a pleasant surprise.
The new sedan's ergonomics are excellent. The controls are straightforward to figure out and easy to use. The well-bolstered front seats are unusually supportive and comfortable. The SX4 is also tall for a compact, so you sit up higher and have better visibility than in most small cars. Two large triangular side windows at either end of the dashboard help give the cabin an open, airy feel.
The SX4's interior is much improved over the Aerio's, but there's still too much plastic on the dash and doors. Suzuki should do more to soften the look of the car's cabin by using patterns and attractive neutral tones the way Honda does. The SX4's front seats are reasonably roomy, and there's far more legroom in the rear seats than in a Honda Civic (36 in. in the Suzuki as opposed to just over 30 in. in the Honda).
The SX4 Sport only comes with a 2.0-liter, 143-horsepower four-cylinder engine, which, considering the car's weight, doesn't move the metal quite as fast as I'd like. I didn't get an accurate time for the SX4 in 0-to-60 runs because I test-drove the car in wet and snowy winter weather. But Car and Driver magazine clocked an SX4 Sport with a stick shift at 9.2 seconds—quicker than the Corollas and Sentras I've tested, but slower than a comparable Honda Civic.
Handling is one of the Suzuki's strong points, perhaps because the SX4 Sport shares some of its mechanics with the Suzuki Swift, a popular model in Europe. The SX4's gearshift, suspension, and steering all are surprisingly tight. It lacks the tinny feel that turned me off in the Aerio. You can head into sharp turns with this car with considerable confidence.
A big negative for the SX4 is its lack of hauling versatility. The 14-cu.-ft. trunk is large for a car this size, but the rear seats don't fold down, as they do in most rival compacts. So, if you regularly haul bulky objects, the SX4 isn't for you. By contrast, the seats in the hatchback version of the SX4 not only fold down, but can be rolled up against the backs of the front seats to create a large cargo space in back.
Buy It or Bag It?
The tradeoffs are pretty clear. You get lots of standard gear for your money, but Honda and Toyota have much better quality ratings. So you have to decide if Suzuki's top-notch warranty gives you enough confidence to go with an SX4 over a Civic or Corolla.
If it does, the SX4 Sport is definitely inexpensive. With an average selling price of just $16,151, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), it's $2,357 under the average compact sedan. By way of comparison, the '08 Civic sedan sells for an average of $18,553, the Mazda3 for $17,726, the Sentra for $16,861, and the Corolla (which is due for a redesign in '09) for $15,592, according to PIN. If you're on a tight budget, consider the Chevy Cobalt at $13,856. (Both PIN and J.D. Power, like BusinessWeek.com, are units of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP).)
Personally, I find the hatchback version of the SX4 more appealing than the new sedan. Its predecessor, the Aerio, was a good idea (four-wheel drive at a budget price) that was poorly executed. But it's hard to beat a four-wheel-drive '08 SX4 hatchback with an automatic transmission priced at $17,000 that's so much better designed and manufactured than the Aerio. The only way to get a cheaper four-wheel-drive vehicle is to buy a used one.
As for the SX4 Sport sedan, I'd test-drive a comparable Honda Civic or Mazda3 before buying one. My favorite in this segment remains the Civic, even if it costs a couple of grand extra.
See the BusinessWeek.com slide show for more of the 2008 Suzuki SX4 Sport.