2008 Suzuki SX4 Fastback – The Cute’Ute

Belting through traffic, I feel as if I should be slaloming wash lines, market carts and pavement cafes, rather than behemoth SUVs, Cube Vans and moderately enraged drivers… one of which happens to be our cameraman in a pursing BMW 535xi. There’s Italian city car flair to the Suzuki SX4, and for good reason; it and the Fiat Sedici are the result of a joint project between the two automakers. Japanese implementation and Italian design wrapped up in a CUV (Cute Utility Vehicle) complete with all-wheel drive – that’s a combination that makes the SX4 possible the best of all worlds.

From the outside the look is unrepentantly cute, not in the MINI’s self-conscious and over designed sort of way, but as a result of form following function. Large headlights, snubbed nose, smiley grin of a grill, short overhangs, 16″ five-spoke alloy wheels, and hints of MINI in the rear and tail light treatment.

As OutDrive tester Justin Mastine-Frost put it, “It’s as if Suzuki hit a SUV with a shrink-ray, then garnished it with rally.”

Scooting past another 110lb-waif trundling along in her passenger-free Land Rover Discovery, the SX4 Fastback feels absolutely Lilliputian. Inside, however, the hatchback is a TARDIS car, feeling bigger inside than out.

The exterior dimensions are dinky by North American “more is more, massive is better” standards; a 2500 mm (98.4 in.) wheelbase wrapped by a total 4115 mm (162.0 in.), and 1730 mm (68.1 in.). At 6’2” and 205lbs I’m not a candidate for rear seat comfort, but the SX4 provides ample leg, head, and shoulder room.

It’s a pleasant place to be, the little zipper is open and airy as a green house. Part of that is down to the height; at 1575 mm (62.0 in.) the SX4 is tall. The rest is down to Suzuki having no fear of glass. With a low beltline, large windows, acreage of windscreen, and neat little triangle windows situated in front of the A-pillars to reduce blind spots, visibility is aces. That’s not what give a car like this it’s dolce character though.

The engine embraces the city car attitude of “just enough” . Actually, by Italian city car standards, the 2.0L engine pumping out 143-hp at 5,800RPM and 136 lb-ft of torque at 3,500RPM, is substantial. Light for its size, with a gross curb weight of 1,725kg (3,803lbs), the inline four’s output is ample to doddle our SX4 JX up to speed.

As a torqued off videographer Kevin will attest, “I thought, when I put my foot down in the 535xi, there’d be no contest.” The SX4 isn’t that fast, but it makes a good start off the line.

True, the automatic transmission steals alacrity from the wee-beastie, bringing 0 to 100 into the 12 seconds range. Worse, the auto-box’s stepped gates rob you of the option of easily shifting between the ratios, the shifts however are smooth and for commuters its ease of use can’t be matched by a manual in traffic.

Regardless of the automatic transmission, the SX4’s engine loves to be spun up and teased… If that’s what you call tromping the throttle.

Dante made poetry from the vernacular; a city car does the same with sheet metal, a lawnmower engine, and handling… excellent handling.

Darting, jaunting, nipping, flitting, the SX4 makes short work of traffic and corners alike. Pressed through the turns there’s less body roll to it than you’d expect from a car you could wear a Rockette’s headress in, and more planted stability that anything in this price range should have the nerve to offer.

Pushed hard through traffic circles or turns the Cute-Ute cocks on its inner rear tire in a cheeky show of urban attitude. The ESP, electronic stability program, catches you before anything too disastrous happens, moderating the braking and cutting power.

Go ahead, try that in your Land Rover Sport.

The handling extends itself to bad weather conditions. Admittedly we had to go out of our way for test purposes, as our favorite winter playground had melted off, save for an SX4 wide strip of snow, slush and ice in the shade of a snow wall.

Shooting along an arms length from icy doom, the SX4 iAWD does a bang-up job of finding loads of traction.

The system has three settings. In 2WD, the SX4 is front wheel drive only, good for fuel economy. Switch to Auto and the SX4 is still primarily front wheel drive, but should things get dicey up to 50% of the power will be sent to the rear wheels. Finally there is the 4WD mode, a locked front/rear 4WD system that reverts to AWD at speeds greater than 60km/h.

Settle down a bit and you start to see the possibilities in the SX4. With a set of roof racks and four friends comfortably seated inside, you have an inexpensive ski car, or in the summer a runner of fire roads for hiking. There’s no getting around it being a darn smart city car, quick handling and short wheelbase ensure that a parking spot on the far side of the street has the SX4’s name on it.

In centres with growing urban density, having a diminutive road footprint is a matter of practicality, and the SX4 is deeply, deeply practical. It seats four, can carry a bit, and slips through traffic’s Gordian knot by grace of spaces other vehicles couldn’t hope to wedge into. That makes the SX4 feel like a smart FourTwo, built for the real world.

There are a couple shortfalls though. On the highway the engine is noisy and laboured sounding, so freeways are simply an “ok” experience. Steep uphill will make 110kph feel like an accomplishment, especially with passengers, and the fun of having your foot planted in the floor would soon wear thin. Then there’s the fuel consumption, 9.2 L/100km in mixed use… hard mixed use.

The build quality might be suspect too, in the rain, you hear the tap-dance of drops against a “tin” roof. The interior’s materials are likewise a bit down scale, but from a design perspective Suzuki has worked well with the selection available. It’s sincerely workmanlike, all straightforward and functional, and doesn’t struggle with putting on airs.

Suzuki has given the SX4 more than just the necessities, choosing to spend money wisely. Our tester came equipped with heated driver’s side mirrors, power windows, power mirrors, comfortable seats, a decent sound system with AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA, leather wrapped steering wheel with remote controls, cruise control, fog lamps, tilt steering column, side impact airbags, side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, Electronic Stability program… You get the idea, the equipment list isn’t that Spartan.

One thing that doesn’t appear on the options list is what sets the SX4 apart beyond the all-wheel drive… spirit.

Driven with a bit of flamboyance the SX4 exhibits a jaunty flair in its assigned task, harkening to the MINI experience but without the heavy burden of carrying around all that brand identity and lifestyle marketing. That alone could make the SX4 the MINI Clubman for those of us without the diesel jeans and UGG boots budget. Factor in the pricing, $25,259.95 for our SX4 JLX tester complete with the all wheel drive, and the SX4 could have the makings of a cult car for North America.


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