Suzuki SX4 SportBack

ROAD TEST by Larry Lark

With Christmas barely in the rearview mirror, the bromide “good things come in small packages” seems appropriate for this week’s test drive – the 2010 Suzuki SX4 SportBack.

Introduced in 2007 as the SX4 Crossover, America’s least expensive auto with all-wheel drive, the SportBack version (front-wheel drive) continues to tinker and add value to its slim, under-$18,000 selling price.

The 2010 version adds these goodies to its already lengthy list of standard features:

All-new 150-horsepower engine with 140 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm, and a six-speed manual transmission or available performance CVT (continuously variable transmission) with paddle shifters.

Segment-exclusive standard navigation with available MSN-enabled real-time traffic, weather, movie times, stock updates, headlines, lowest gas prices finder, airline arrival/departures and on-screen Bluetooth text message displays.

America’s number one warranty underscores Japanese-built quality and refinement.

The SX4 SportBack is one of the best-equipped vehicles in the segment, inviting comparison with small sedans, wagons and “hot hatches” costing far more. Standard features include power windows, power mirrors and door locks, leather steering wheel, fog lights, six-disc CD changer, upgraded audio system, keyless start, automatic HVAC, aero body package, cruise control, air conditioning, audio system with CD/MP3/XM satellite radio, tilt steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels and trip computer.

My iPod Nano worked seamlessly through the radio and the steering-wheel-integrated controls, with playlist and track information appearing on the audio display. Andrea Bocelli belting out Yuletide cheer never sounded better.

The SX4 SportBack seats four adults comfortably and delivers 30 miles per gallon on the highway, making it an excellent choice for commuters looking for value – but not at the expense of fun. And what’s more, the hatchback provided plenty of room for holiday gifts that could be hidden from the eyesight of parking lot predators.

Better still, the 60/40 split rear seats fold flat, unleashing a surprising cargo hold for this diminutive ride. Eight Les Schwab tire bag rolls were transported to Christmas House with room to spare for my gym bag, a couple of books and two glass floats.

The SX4 SportBack looks the part with the addition of a subtle – albeit effective – aero package, along with minor tweaks to both bumper and grille. A modest chin spoiler and side skirts direct air flow beneath the car, while a revised rear spoiler above the backlight better manages air over the car.

The entire package is lowered 15mm when compared to the SX4 Crossover, providing a lower center of gravity, aggressive stance and more dynamic handling. The new engine delivers instant responsiveness, a much smaller carbon footprint than its predecessor, and a power-to-weight ratio found in leading hot-hatch competitors costing thousands more.