Suzuki SX4

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An entry-level wagon with standard all-wheel drive and saucy good looks. But there are tradeoffs. So do you really need all-wheel drive?

Cute as a new hiking shoe, the darling little Suzuki SX4 arrived just in time for three days of freezing rain. With its coppery paint almost phosphorescing under all that sheet ice, the SX4 eyed me warily through its large headlights and tried not to look like a yummy dessert.

When I finally thawed out the poor little wagon, I discovered a nice interior layout, although it was trimmed unremittingly in black. (I'm generally not the sort whom you will find complaining about "cheap plastic" in an inexpensive car.) The red dials and displays are attractive. Seating is comfortable enough, with excellent visibility through the big windshield. Extra daylight is admitted through the little triangular windows at the A-pillar. While surprisingly well equipped with convenience features, the SX4's biggest disadvantage against competitors is how awkwardly the rear seats fold up against the backs of the front ones: some razzmatazz is required with a cord to keep everything in place, and one is reminded that the Honda Fit's rear seats are absurdly easy to manipulate. In fact, mentioning the Fit as a competitor highlights the point that the SX4 plays in a most demanding league. Our test vehicle stickers at $15,999, and the SX4 Sport reaches $17,399. By way of comparison, the Fit Sport is offered for $16,565.

The SX4's biggest claim of uniqueness is its standard three-mode, all-wheel-drive system. You may switch between front-wheel drive; or full-time, all-wheel drive, which sends torque to the rear wheels when the front ones slip; or, finally, a kind of poor man's low-range for tricky going in snow, ice, or mud.

Here are overall conclusions:

    The four-speed automatic included with my test car was pretty awful, and I think I would much prefer the five-speed manual (although the fuel economy estimates are incongruously lower). Speaking of fuel economy, I forgot to switch back to front-wheel drive for a long Ann Arbor-Royal Oak-Toledo-Ann Arbor freeway trip, on which the SX4 returned just 25 mpg. The car rattles and creaks, but so do its competitors.

So the real question with the SX4: How badly do you need all-wheel drive?

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