Suzuki SX4 Crossover

As a company, Suzuki often seems a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, stuffed into a slightly shoddy handbag that smells of cheese. On the one hand, you have the motorcycle side of the company, maker of end-times miracles such as the Hayabusa and the GSX-R. These are completely and utterly fantastic bikes, virtually without peer, especially if you like going 300 mph in first gear. The company also makes scooters, ATVs and outboard motors, and I hear they are pretty good too.

On the other hand, you have the automotive side of the business. I wonder if, given the uneven track record of American Suzuki, a busload of auto execs and a busload of Suzuki Method violin teachers somehow got switched, and now eager 5-year-olds are learning how to charge extra for undercoating.

Certainly, the car operations have seemed feckless. In 2003, American Suzuki announced a sales goal of 200,000 autos by 2008. But the company's sales have leveled off at around 100,000 units for the last two years, hamstrung by less-than-compelling offerings such as the XL7 mid-size SUV (a platform partner with GM's Chevy Equinox) and Daewoo-built tragicomedies such as the Reno and Forenza, which go away after model year 2008.

In related news, American Suzuki Chairman Rick Suzuki recently tendered his resignation. It's not necessarily germane. I just love his name, like Donnie Toyota.

Suzuki wants to turn things around: A new mid-size truck (based on the Nissan Frontier) is coming to the U.S. this fall, an Acura-battling mid-size sedan is due in 2009 and the Swift sub-compact will return in 2010. There's also talk of a homegrown hybrid model. But for now, Suzuki's sexiest product is the SX4 Crossover, which has the distinction of being the bestselling small SUV in Europe and the cheapest and most fuel-efficient all-wheel-drive vehicle sold in the U.S.

And yet, "cheap" is such a harsh word. Tell you what: Think of the SX4 Crossover as a slow and homely, extremely affordable Bugatti Veyron.

AWD is not much of a selling point here in sunny SoCal, but in many other parts of the country, it is all but indispensable. Cleverly, the SX4-C, with a manual or automatic transmission, provides three traction modes: front-wheel drive (a mode that offers slightly better fuel economy), AWD automatic (shifting power from front to rear wheels as needed) or AWD "lock," for low-speed, low-traction conditions. Suzuki's "intelligent" AWD system is, in comparison to Audi's Quattro, a bit of a dolt; still, it's perfectly adequate to get you back and forth to work in suburban Rochester, N.Y.

The fuel economy ratings for the car -- 21/28 mpg, city/highway -- are a lot more enticing if you keep in mind that a car stuck in the driveway gets zero miles per gallon.

I really like this car, and I search my notebook to see why. Well, it's a tidy and cute design, with lots of go-its-own way charisma. But that's not enough. It's got good but certainly not unmatched rear storage space -- about 16 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and 43 cubes with the rear seats folded (loaded to seat back height). The rear seats provide adequate butt-age but the SX4-C will never find work as a gypsy cab.

I associate the sense of well-being with some of Suzuki's subtle ergonomic choices. The seat height -- that is, the height of the seat off the floor -- is quite tall, providing a natural upright seating position. At the same time, the sill lines (where the windows meet the body) are very low and the windshield slopes away almost out of sight, so the outward sightlines from the tall saddle are terrific. These design choices are quite deliberate, as you can tell by the car's strangely forked A-pillar. Suzuki wanted maximum glass around the driver.

In any event, being able to see out of a car instantly puts me at ease, whereas driving a Lambo Murcielago makes me want to curl up in the fetal position.

This warm well-being could also be because the thing is so cheap. Our $16,870 test car, in Touring trim, trundled out the door with alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, stability control, six air bags, fog lamps, keyless entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel, a six-CD, nine-speaker audio system with MP3 and iPod connectivity. That's a lot of stuff. If buyers don't find all that compelling, they can wait until the '09s roll in to dealerships. It will be the first model under $16,000 to offer a navigation system as standard equipment.

All-wheel drive, nav, alloy wheels, good stereo? That's pretty much everything on my personal must-have punch list -- that and 600 hp.

What's it like to drive? Pretty entertaining, all things considered. The car feels tight and well sorted. All the black rubber-and-plastic bits fit together well. The seats are firm and supportive. The instrumentation glows cheerfully, with an orange, jack-o-lantern beam. In overall soundness and vacuum-packed solidity, the Suzuki's interior decor compares well with that of the Mazda3, which is the benchmark of overachieving cheapness.

Once under way, the 2.0-liter lump of aluminum under the hood is surprisingly willing and hearty, especially when stirred by the five-speed manual transmission (the automatic has four ratios). The little car nips around town lightly. Steering is tight and direct, likewise with braking.

The 0-to-60 mph acceleration hovers in the low-9-second range, but the more important 0-30 mph -- the step-off acceleration -- is quick enough that no one will think the SX4 is short on ponies.

Well, not no one. Suzuki has entered into a partnership with tuner Road Race Motorsports, which has fashioned a turbocharger kit for the SX4, bumping horsepower from the modest 143 to an entirely immodest 221.

Question: Will the seven-year/100,000-mile warranty apply to a car with this turbocharged grenade stuck under the hood?

A sporty Suzuki on four wheels? Now there's a concept.

2008 Suzuki SX4 Crossover

Base price: $14,770

Price, as tested: $16,870

Powertrain: 2.0-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder; five-speed manual transmission; all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 143 at 5,800 rpm

Torque: 136 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm

Curb weight: 2,855 pounds

0-60 mph: 9 seconds

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches

Overall length: 162.8 inches

EPA fuel economy: 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Cheap snowshoes