SX4 Sportback vs. Mini Cooper
Amenities: Navigation, Bluetooth, upgraded stereo, keyless ignition.
The better car: Mini Cooper
The verdict: The sum of the Mini is greater than the Suzuki's parts.
The idea that a subcompact doesn't have to be an econobox is still a rather novel one in the U.S. market. There are basically two approaches to building a more expensive "B-segment" car. The first route, taken by this Suzuki as well as the popular Honda Fit, is to start with a cheap car and simply add content. The second method, which the new Mini largely pioneered, is to build a subcompact that's intrinsically more costly, and presumably more refined and better driving.
If you have not driven a Suzuki lately - and judging by the brand's recent sales numbers, you haven't - you'll likely be surprised by the SX4 Sportback's strong all-around performance. Beyond the usual small car strengths, including good fuel economy, good visibility, and easy maneuverability, the SX4 offers surprising refinement and tons of content. The suspension, upgraded in Sport models with performance-oriented KYB dampers, does a good job absorbing large bumps and the six-speed manual transmission keeps revs tolerably low on the highway. The only point of controversy is the navigation system. The "in-dash" system appears to be an off-the-shelf Garmin unit that has been stuck unceremoniously to a spring-loaded door atop the dash, and wired to read directions through the eight-speaker stereo. Some editors dismissed the system as little more than a gimmick, but others praised it as a cheap, but effective solution.
We expected a big difference in driving the Suzuki back-to-back with the Mini, but actually were less bowled over than we expected. The Mini isn't significantly quieter, and it's also feels no faster, as its weight advantage is largely mitigated by the Suzuki's larger, more powerful four-cylinder. It's only when the pace becomes frenetic that the Mini asserts itself. The SX4, even with the performance dampers, is simply no match for the Mini when it comes to road holding and body control (our Mini did have optional larger wheels, but otherwise had no mechanical upgrades). The SX4's steering feel and shift action, though decent when considered on its own, feels hopelessly vague and sloppy compared to Mini's heavy, precise steering and tightly gated manual gearbox, which are as good as one expects from a BMW-product.