Review: 2011 Suzuki SX4 SportBack
By Chris Haak
In this design-centric era in which we live, many of us – myself included – have fallen victim to buying the best-looking item, and not necessarily the most efficient or most practical one. The iPhone 4 looks so great – but you can’t hold it a certain way in low-signal areas and expect to make a call.
Some folks, though, do prefer keeping things simple. They want a phone that doesn’t text, take pictures, have Internet access, or have a touchscreen. For them, the Suzuki SX4 SportBack may be just the ticket. It’s not a beautiful car – it has an unfashionably large daylight opening with its tall roofline and low door sills – and it’s not a performance car. However, it most certainly is an honest, competent piece of basic transportation.
It’s kind of funny how the notion of “basic transportation” has changed over the years. Ten years ago, pretty much the only cars with navigation systems had a three pointed star, an italicized L, or a blue and white roundel on their grille or hood. And yet here we have a Suzuki model that boasts navigation, air conditioning, power windows/locks/steering, remote keyless entry, a DOHC four cylinder, alloy wheels, and four wheel disc brakes for less than $18,000. The SX4 SportBack Technology, which this one is, includes an integrated Garmin nüvi GPS navigation system.
The beauty of the car’s simplicity – forgetting about its navigation system for a moment – is that you can jump into the car, press the clutch, turn the key, put it in gear, and be on your way. The radio is easy to operate, the clutch is easy to actuate, and the car does everything that it’s supposed to do. Performance is also adequate. Once upon a time, Suzuki only sold the SX4 as an all wheel drive pseudo-wagon. Now, the SportBack model is available only with FWD, and the SX4 Crossover is available with only AWD. The SX4 is also available as a very dorky-looking sedan, though – like the also dorky-looking Nissan Versa sedan – we’d recommend the five-door from a practicality and aesthetics standpoint.
Few car manufacturers want to call their vehicles “wagons,” which is probably why Suzuki uses the “SportBack” and “Crossover” pseudonyms. Perhaps Suzuki felt its nerve calling the SX4 a wagon because the cargo area aft of the rear seat is so short. You can get an idea for how small it is by noting the small length of the window between the C- and D-pillars; there’s not much back there. Maximum cargo is also far larger in the SportBack than in the sedan, at 51.8 cubic feet against 15.1 cubic feet. With all the seats still in place, the SportBack’s 16 cubic feet trumps the sedan’s at 15.1 cubic feet. So in addition to practical considerations, another reason to go with the wagon is that the longer roof also helps de-emphasize the SX4’s visual height.
As is expected in a car with a “$17” at the beginning of its price, there’s a lot of hard plastic in the interior. For some reason, it didn’t really bother me. Each front seat door panel has a padded, fabric-covered area for resting your elbow, and there are folding fabric-covered (and padded) armrests on the inboard sides of each of the front seats. Most of the time, I was driving the SX4 solo, so I left the driver’s armrest down and the passenger’s armrest up. That left me plenty of room to reach the gearshift, yet still gave me the opportunity to relax my right arm during steady-state cruising.
Speaking of steady-state cruising, thanks to its six-speed manual, sixth gear is reasonably subdued on the highway. However, if you have to climb a hill, expect to drop the SX4 down a gear or two, or you’ll lose momentum. The only issue I encountered on the highway was that the car felt very susceptible to crosswinds, thanks to its tall silhouette and fairly slab-sided profile.
Suzuki made some waves a few years ago by throwing in a free navigation system with its SX4s. That system is now part of a package, and is a somewhat intriguing cross between a factory-integrated system and an aftermarket dash-mounted one. It’s just a Garmin nüvi, which itself seems to be a decent handheld navigation tool. The map display dynamically adjusts perspective as you slow down to give additional street detail, then goes for a more wide-angle view when your speed is greater. Aside from the initial Bluetooth pairing, which was frustrating and took several minutes and numerous attempts, it’s easy to use. It’s a touchscreen interface and actually accepts some rudimentary single-finger gestures for moving from screen to screen.
The nüvi is integrated with the SX4 in a curious way. Rather than being stuck in the spot that a radio head unit would typically occupy, which would put the navigation screen within easy reach but require an expensive dash re-engineering, Suzuki stuck it inside a small hinged storage compartment atop the dash. By pushing down on the lid to this compartment, the nüvi slowly opens. At the base of the door, there is a multi-pin connector that gives the nüvi its power and integrates it with the car’s audio system. This integration allows voice directions to override the audio system, allows Bluetooth phone integration, and keeps the nüvi fully charged and ready to use. It also prevents destination entry while the vehicle is moving, unless you happen to un-dock it.
You can unclip the top of the nüvi and use it on battery power. I found that sometimes that it was easier to enter a destination with the device in my hands than to reach all the way to the top of the dash. Despite my long arms, I found it almost impossible to reach the screen in its normal position when wearing a suit and long overcoat. To re-dock it, just connect it with its bottom connector and snap the top connector in. Re-docking isn’t quite as smooth or easy as it sounds, but it rarely took more than five seconds to accomplish.
Don’t expect to win many races with the SX4 SportBack, at least without converting it to a WRC car. It’s just that 150 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque don’t go as far as they used to, with all of the comfort and safety features found in new cars today. That being said, because the car is so short, it’s very maneuverable in trafic, and can quickly squirt into small openings. If the guy next to you at the traffic light is actually trying, he can beat you, but if you catch them off guard, you’re golden.
Once underway, the SX4 is reasonably quiet inside for an economy car, it has good steering feel with a firm, progressive brake pedal. The four wheel discs aren’t huge, but this is a lightweight, low-horsepower car. It is reasonably composed over bumps and has less body roll than you might expect given its height. Really, the only gripes about the SX4’s on-the-road behavior are that the engine can get a little buzzy when wringing it out (and it loses steam in the upper reaches of the tachometer), and the gearshift’s action is somewhat imprecise. I don’t think I missed any shifts in my week with the car, but its throws are long and you can wiggle the gearshift left and right even when it’s engaged in a gear.
Despite somewhat mediocre EPA fuel economy estimates of 22 MPG city/30 MPG highway – which, by the way, are worse than the larger and boxier Kia Sportage – my observed fuel economy was uncharacteristically close to the EPA highway number. That almost never happens for me, as my driving habits and my typical routes push me close to the EPA city number. Instead, I observed a combined 28 MPG from mixed driving in the SX4.
Pricing for the SX4 sedan starts at just $14,244 including destination, but that bare-bones model lacks many of the SportBack’s features. The SportBack starts at $16,499 without the technology package, or $16,999 with it. (My test vehicle had it). Standard features in the SportBack include navigation, air conditioning, power windows/door locks, power mirrors, CD/AM/FM audio with MP3 auxiliary jack, cruise control, tilt wheel, leather wrapped steering wheel, trip computer, outside temperature gauge, fold-flat rear seats, and a 7 year/100,000 mile transferable powertrain limited warranty. The only option on my test car was Bluetooth “with screen graphics” for $250. Tack on the $745 destination fee, and the MSRP comes to $17,994. The SX4 SportBack is available any color you want, as long as it’s black Quicksilver Metallic or Vivid Red. Other variants of the SX4 are available with a larger palette, and still other versions are similarly color-limited.
According to TrueDelta, an SX4 SportBack costs almost exactly the same as a Honda Fit – just $500 less. The Suzuki weighs about 300 pounds more than Honda’s smallest offering, and has a 150 horsepower four cylinder against the Fit’s 117 horsepower mill. Despite the Fit’s weight advantage, the SX4 is a bit quicker in a straight line, but the Fit is far more tossable in curves. The two cars have nearly identical dimensions – the same wheelbase (98.4 inches), and shoulder/hip/head room all within an inch or less in most measures. But in terms of cargo capacity, the Fit murders the SX4. The Fit has 20.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the seats up against the SX4’s 8.2 cubic feet. With the seats folded flat, the Fit swallows 57.3 cubic feet of cargo, against the SX4’s 38.1 cubic feet.
My wife commented that she really liked the simplicity and honesty of the SX4, and I’d have to agree. She also noted that it would be a great car for a kid. I pointed out that most kids have $2,500 to pay for their car, not $18,000. But if that kid were gainfully employed, had a little help from mom and dad, and bought a two or three year old SX4, it would be a pretty prudent, and more realistic choice. With its eight airbags, Japanese reliability (zero percent US/Canadian content, for whatever that’s worth), and practical shape and features, the SX4 SportBack is the poor man’s Honda Fit. But it’s sure to be a much better used car bargain than any Honda is, for a car that’s nearly just as good.