Kia and Hyundai have loudly made inroads into the US auto market recently, but Suzuki also is attempting to establish a bigger presence.
Consider today's test car, the 2007 SX4. Parents sometimes ask what to buy for their kids. From now on, this will be one of the cars I suggest.
First, at $16,000, I can't find a less expensive all-wheel-drive car. Second, it is chock full of air bags. And third, the blend of modest performance and utility is just fine for driving in New England weather conditions.
The road suitability is mostly because the car comes equipped with a three-level system called i-AWD (intelligent all-wheel drive). The first level powers only the front wheels, appropriate for normal running and to save fuel. True full-time AWD systems use more gas.
But on a slippery highway or back road, click into AWD Auto. It monitors wheel slip and sends power where you need it most -- fore or aft -- and operates in front-wheel drive only under normal driving conditions.
If you need to slog through deeper snow or require traction in getting to a backroad venue -- or you just don't have time to shovel out in the morning before work -- there's another option: AWD Lock. It delivers 30 to 50 percent of the power to the rear, but all four wheels are always working. It cuts out at 36 miles per hour.
Even as I write about the SX4's features, I have to keep reminding myself that it's a $16,000 car. So it's got to be cheap, right? Not at all. True, the seats aren't leather, there's no voice announcing when to make a left turn, and if your steering wheel is cold, you wear gloves.
But the SX4 is roomy, particularly for four passengers, and with a high roofline it has the spacious feel of some far larger cars.
The textured dash slopes gently toward the driver's compartment and features a center control pod, with a brushed metal-look plastic that nicely hides any cost savings. The knobs and buttons for audio and climate control are easily manipulated. And a radio/CD player with MP3 capability is standard.
The car is powered by a 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder engine that produces 143 horsepower and 136 lb.-ft. of torque. Four-speed automatic and five-speed manual transmissions are also available. Understand that you are not going drag racing in this car, and you won't win the Mount Washington Auto Road climb. You will, however, roll just fine as long as you don't expect to beat a Subaru WRX Sti from a red light.
You will also need to anticipate when it's time to pass another car, because the SX4 tends to run out of oomph at somewhere just above 4,000 r.p.m. It is stiffly stable on the road and sits firm, owing largely to antiroll bars front and rear. There is a tendency to oversteer, but it's fairly benign.
Outside, the nose is short and raked backward rather aggressively so that the view from the inside reveals little of the hood. The windshield rises long and fast. From there, the SX4 turns into a small station wagon -- it has a flat roof with rails that lead to a rather sudden drop-off at a chopped rear gate.
Standard safety equipment includes ABS and driver and passenger front and side bags, and curtain bags front and rear. Move up to the SX4 Sport package to add electronic stability and traction control. It's $1,000 well spent, plus you get other goodies, such as an upgraded sound system with a six-CD changer.
Other standard gear includes a 60/40 split folding rear seat, power windows/locks/mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels, and remote keyless entry. There's also a seven-year, 100,000-mile warranty.
The SX4 is a good buy.