In the Autoblog Garage: 2007 Suzuki SX4

It's not easy these days to find a brand new car for less than $15,000, and if you're looking for all-wheel drive with that budget, your choices are severely limited. In fact, Suzuki says the 2007 SX4 is the least expensive all-wheel-drive vehicle for sale in the U.S., coming in a buck less than $15,000 with a manual transmission. That's the good news.

Bad news? Suzuki wants you to think of this as a competitor to Honda's Fit and Nissan's Versa, but it ain't quite there yet. Honda's interior quality and handling easily trump the Suzuki's four-wheel power. The Honda and Nissan both win on fuel economy and base price. But then, you still don't have the SX4's all-wheel pull.

Click through to continue reading our take on the SX4.

The SX4 is a decent looking car, even in the base trim our tester wore. Stepping up to the Sport level gets you a standard automatic tranny, dual climate control, cruise control, better sound and a few appearance items for another $1,500. The upgrade improves the looks, but with no added performance parts, it doesn't deserve the Sport badge. In fact, Suzuki offers an options list full of carbon fiber and brushed aluminum that would make a Scion dealer jealous, but it's all show, no go. The only mechanical option available on the SX4 is an automatic transmission at $1,100.

Our all-wheel-drive, manual transmission Suzuki arrived with no options at all, but its set of standard equipment included power windows and doors, AC, airbags all around, roof rails, 16" alloys, and ABS. Over 164 mostly city miles, we got 21 mpg, compared to the EPA's rating of 28 hwy / 23 city.

We've already said we like the looks of the car, but they can be deceiving. It's a tall vehicle on a short wheelbase, and from the outside looks rather roomy. It is for front seat passengers, but we found rear seat leg room a bit tight with the front seats comfortably adjusted. Suzuki calls the SX4 a small wagon, but it's got less luggage space than a VW New Beetle. That ain't no wagon. We shoved our Graco stroller in the Suzuki's hatch and, well, that's it. You're not getting much else in there. One lone baggage hook in the cargo area looked ready to snap on its first call of duty.

AOL Autos says the Fit has 21 cu. ft. of cargo space, the Versa and Kia's Rio almost 16. The SX4? Eight. The SX4's seats fold flat for 43.1 cu. ft. of usable cargo carrying space, which bests the Fit's 41.9.

Hopefully it at least makes the driver happy, right? No. In fact, the it's hard to remember the last time we used a new car shifter as unpleasant as the SX4's. It felt like moving a steel rod around in a bucket of pea gravel. And there was a lot of gravel getting moved around to keep the engine revs high enough to find all of its 143 horses. At a recent Barber Motorsports event, Suzuki SX4s had been donated by a local dealer for pace cars. The driver took it around the track before the race to make sure it could perform its duties. Keep it in second gear is what he recommended. Even with the car's lack of acceleration, we found it tended to lean in sharp turns with understeer evident despite the all-wheel drive. We don't recommend using your personal SX4 as a pace car, by the way.

Suzuki's web site describes the SX4 as "Your destination for mid-sized luxury," and says it has a "decadent interior." We looked, but didn't find any small print saying only applicable in third-world countries, so we wonder what their idea of luxury is. Maybe it's "not presently on fire" or "guaranteed not to chaff for at least an hour." The seat fabric is ok, but the plastics are hard and several spots in the cabin look unfinished and cheap. One example is where the rear seat backs attach to the body. The locking mechanisms are exposed through an unfinished hole cut in the fabric. It's functional, but sure isn't pretty. A 10 cent grommet would have added so much to the feel of the car. The driver's sun visor has a mirror, but the passenger's does not, which we found quite odd. Rolling down more than one window at a time or operating the power door locks caused the interior lights to dim, something we don't usually see on new cars.

For anyone parking this thing in relatively unsafe areas, the SX4 has a standard security system. Unfortunately, the security system is nothing more than a blinking red LED on the dashboard, which the manual says is to "make others believe the car is protected by an anti-theft device." We did not make that up. Now that's luxury of which even Yugo would be envious. Speaking of the car's manual, it's huge. So huge in fact, there's little room left in the glove box for much else. We recommend you either leave it at home or strap it to the roof rails.

Oh, a bit more good news. Installing a child safety seat in the center was pretty easy. However, there's a catch. Despite our best efforts, the rear, center headrest would not come out. So we had to raise it as high as it would go and slip the child seat below it. The seat fit, but made the rearview mirror virtually worthless.

If you just gotta have a new all-wheel-drive car and cost is your second biggest concern, go get an SX4. It's your least expensive choice and has a great 7-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a just OK 3-year/36,000-mile overall warranty. If you can spare a few more bucks for all-wheel drive or don't mind used, look at a Subaru. If you're just looking for an economy car, better, more economical choices still abound.

All Photos Copyright 2007 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

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