Improved engine, slick transmission pump up performance
by: JAIME VALDEZ, The larger air dam and new rear spoiler are only the most visible signs of Suzuki's welcome return to the hot hatch wars with the new SX4 Sportback.

The 2010 SX4 Sportback marks a welcome return to the hot hatchback market by Suzuki, whose turbo Sprint and Swift GT were two of the best bang-for-the-buck pocket rockets of 1980s.

The Japanese manufacturer stopped importing such cars in the 1990s. Since then, Suzuki has been better known for offering a lengthy warranty on a line of economical but dull cars and SUV. Suzuki finally began to shake things up again in 2008 when it introduced the SX4 Crossover to the American market. The all-wheel-drive version of the compact hatchback was the cheapest such vehicle in the country, selling for thousands less than its closest competitors, including the Subaru Imperza and the all-wheel-drive versions of the Jeep Compass and Patriot.

And the SX4 Crossover was not a tiny, stripped down model, either, like the Subaru Justy of the mid-1990s. Instead, it was an attractive and practical five-door that offered a lot of passenger room, respectable interior materials and a good stereo system. Some car reviewers dubbed the all-wheel-drive version the bargain of the decade.

Suzuki muddied the waters a bit in 2009 by promoting the front-wheel-drive version as direct competitor to the clearly superior (but more expensive) Mini Cooper, and by introducing a sedan version that was not available with all-wheel-drive. Although both models were good values, there was little to distinguish them from the numerous other relatively inexpensive economy cars on the market, except for Suzuki's 7-year/100,000-mile power train warranty.

Now Suzuki has clarified the picture somewhat with the 2010 SX4 Sportback, a factory customized version of the two-wheel-drive Crossover than actually seems intended to give such highly-rated hatchbacks as the Mini and Mazda3 a run for their money.

The biggest improvement is the revised 2.0-liter dual overhead cam inline four cylinder engine. Although it only produces 7 more horsepower than last year's version (up to 150), the power comes on much quicker, increasing the driving fun. It will be available in the other models, too.

Our test model also came with a six-speed manual transmission, which replaced last year's five-speed version. It shifted very smoothly, without the spring-loaded feel of some six-speeds that keep pulling the lever back to the center three-to-four gears.

Suzuki also lowered the Sportback slightly, increasing stability in corners. The four-wheel-disc brakes are more than adequate for such a light car. And the steering is very quick and direct, which encourages aggressive driving.

The Sportback comes with an attractive Aero Body Package that includes a larger front air scoop, side body moldings and rear-mounted spoiler. Added to our Vivid Red test model, the package achieved its purpose of increasing the sport look of the car.

Credit: Northwest Automotive Press Association

COURTESY OF NORTHWEST AUTOMOTIVE PRESS ASSOCIATION • A sign of things to come? Suzuki backed this one-of-a-kind turbocharged all-wheel-drive SX4 Crossover, seen here during a summer 2009 trip to Central Oregon.

All versions of the SX4 are relatively tall for small cars, providing generous head room in the front and rear seat areas. But because it is also a short car, cargo space behind the rear seats is limited compared to more wagon-like vehicles. Folding down the rear seats greatly increases the carrying capacity, however.

in the past, some SX4 owners have complained that it is hard to find a completely comfortable driving position, in part because of the forward angle on the steering wheel. Our test car came with a height adjustable steering wheel and driver's seat that offered a wide range of seating postions. Nevertheless, extended test drives are recommended, just to be sure.

Another annoyance is a verbal warning system. Several times during our weeklong test, the sound went out on the stereo and a woman's voice came on and said, 'Traffic ahead.' But we knew there was traffic ahead. We could see it. And some times there wasn't any.

But those shortcomings are slight compared to the car's many virtues. At under $19,000 (including an upgraded audio system and touch-screen navigation system), the 2010 SX4 Sportback is similar to the original all-wheel-drive Crossover - an entertaining car that undercuts its competition by thousands of dollars. It may not be the best performance-oriented hatchback out there, but is could be the greatest value.

For our money, we'd prefer to see the performance options applied to the all-wheel-drive SX4. Suzuki offered us a hint of such results by giving us a chance to drive a turbocharged prototype this summer. Although the suspension was too stiff for daily driving, the speed and grip were incredible. Hopefully a more streetable version will see production some day.

In the meantime, Suzuki will reportedly bring its current generation of the smaller but faster Swift back to America later this year. It has already drawn rave reviews abroad and could help reignite the hot hatch wars here at home.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 SX4 Sportback.

• Manufacturer: Suzuki.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front or all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door, five passenger hatchback.

• Engines: 2.0-liter DOHC inline 4 cylinder (150 hp).

• Transmissions: Continuously variable transmission (CVT); 6-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 22/24; 22/30 (as tested).

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