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March 9, 2009

Review: 2009 Suzuki SX4 Sedan

Success plays mind games on people.  Sometimes it pushes you to do greater things, sometimes it makes you complacent and sometimes it makes you do silly things.  Take Michael Phelps for example: the sheer weight of eight Olympic gold medals hung around his neck had caused him to smoke pot.  In front of the camera no less.  And much like Phelps, Suzuki is leaning towards downright silliness.  The sheer success of their Swift sub-compact has caused them to move up the automotive ladder.  They set their sights on the Mazda3 and the Honda Civic with (drum rolls please) the SX4 Sedan.  That’s a pretty tall order considering that the SX4 has a wheelbase of just 2,500 mm—making it even shorter than even Honda City.

Whether you see it as a sub-compact or a compact sedan, you can’t ignore the rarity of the SX4.  And that’s not meant in a positive way.  It’s definitely not sporty because of the tall boy proportions.  The roofline looks oddly raised compared to the dinky ends.  There are attempts to hide it including slapping on a sports kits, but to little effect.  Even the 15-inch alloys look deceptively small next to the metal work.  However, the exterior fit and finish as well as paint work (the pearlescent white doesn’t come at extra cost) are simply top notch.

Though the outside exudes quality, the moment you step inside, the SX4 reverts back to its Plain Jane econobox roots.  The cabin looks quite alright with the layout exactly as you’d expect from a Japanese sedan, but there are just too plain cheap and flimsy parts in here.  The dash itself, with its nicely grained pattern is actually rock hard.  Then the major controls (power window switches, stalks, ventilation knobs) feel like they’re going to snap off after sometime.  But the biggest shame goes to the circular air vents which feel they’re going to bend or crack by simply staring at them.  Go ahead, try it.  You may give the Silvia Mind Control method a run for their money.

And that’s the sad part since there are still some things to like with the SX4 like the thick-rimmed steering wheel.  Even the instrumentation with its vertically resting tachometer is bold and unique.  At night they glow sporty red, something you simply wouldn’t expect.  And there’s the modular audio system, which despite being devoid of an aux-in jack, delivers excellent sound through its eight-speaker system.  But the most likeable thing is the use of high-gloss metallic trim on the center console.  It’s still made of plastic, but it looks like the real deal.

 The whale-like proportions enable the SX4 to free up a lot of interior space.  Despite the aforementioned wheelbase and the lack of fancy space saving features like a flat-rear floor, this car offers generous occupant space.  The tall roofline equates to a feeling of airiness like that of an MPV.  Plus, the seating is generous for all occupants.  Even those seated at the back will like the supportive seats, ample knee room and headrests for all.  The odd trunk line also hides an enormous cavity enough to swallow a 6-foot man plus a weekend’s worth of shopping.  And that’s even before activating the 60/40 split-fold function.

Ergonomically, you sit high in the SX4.  Coupled with the large A-pillar and short dash, it gives a towering feel compared to other cars on the road.  The A-pillar windows should have theoretically eliminated blind spots, but because of the oddly shaped A-pillar itself (where it drops almost vertically rather than sloping) it hampers visibility quite a bit especially near the three-quarters front of the car.

The un-carlike driving position serves as a precursor to the SX4’s on-road performance.  Though you don’t get anything sporty, you do get a very comfortable, very serene driving experience—something you’d come to expect in traditionally tuned sedans.  This car isolates road imperfections very well.  The long travel and softly sprung suspension make it glide through whatever it is on the road from dead cats to potholes.  Even the tires, with the 65 side profile were definitely chosen more for comfort than cornering.  The excessive use of sound insulating foam makes the cabin extra quite too, but thicker windows could have been used to eliminate the excessive amounts of wind noise at cruising speed (60-80 km/h).  The biggest irritant though has got to be the 1.6-liter motor which produces an ear shattering drone-like noise.

Those wanting a bit of cornering fun should look away right now as the SX4 doesn’t like to be pushed.  Despite having a relatively large motor for its size, the SX4 struggles with its heavy curb weight and therefore it feels no faster than a 1.5-liter car.  The asthmatic sound of the engine doesn’t help either.  In addition, this car struggles through tight corners because of body roll and under steer.  However, it still feels safe and planted, though you do have to work the steering much harder to keep it in line.  Despite the disc/drum brake handicap, the SX4 manages to stop very well, but pedal modulation could be better.

It’s easy to dismiss the SX4 as utter rubbish, but it does have its saving graces.  It’s a car that doesn’t like corners, and it’s not something you’d say is built like a tank.  But it does have excellent room and a comfortable driving experience.  What ruins the SX4’s chances for mainstream success is that Suzuki marketing pundits have classified this as a Mazda3 challenger.  And you can’t take the SX4 seriously at that.  Meanwhile, its P 814,000 price tag doesn’t make it a serious threat against the Vios.  Even if you opt for Toyota’s expensive leather seating option, you’ll still save some cash in the process.  The SX4 is stuck in a very, very small niche slotting in-between top-of-the-line sub-compacts and entry-level compacts.  It can do well in that segment, assuming no one else would come into the fray.

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