You can count the number of compact hatchbacks available in Canada that offer all-wheel-drive on the fingers of one hand - and all you'll require is three of them.
Toyota offers an all-wheel-drive version of its Matrix, Subaru powers all four corners of all its vehicles including its Impreza and finally, there's Suzuki's SX4, which arrived on the scene a few years ago.
Suzuki has made some minor styling changes and some worthwhile mechanical improvements to the SX4 for 2010 that include a more powerful and efficient engine, two new transmissions and some interior alterations.
The SX4 Hatchback's combination of compact size, reasonable price, okay performance and economy and a hatch that hinges upward like a python's jaw allowing it to swallow surprisingly large objects, or lots of odds and sods, makes it a much more sensible proposition than the sedan version.
And when you opt for one with an AWD system - that gives it a real security edge when winter kicks in - it makes even more sense.
The SX4 hatchback is available with front-wheel-drive starting at $17,695, but the vehicle we'll look at here is the top-of-the-line JLX equipped with continuously variable automatic transmission and AWD that goes for $24,695. AWD is available as an option on some of the lower-priced models.
Suzuki pitches the SX4 as a combination SUV and hatchback, or a sort of, well, crossover in miniature. And its high roofline and generous cargo capacity of 1,465 litres (the Matrix offers 1,359 litres and the Impreza 1,257 litres) lends this notion some credibility. But don't fall under the spell of this marketing illusion to the point you're tempted to take the SX4 any further off-road than you would any other compact car.
A revised grille treatment is the only noticeably new feature for 2010 on the outside.
The interior of the JLX version is nicely, if not particularly richly, done, but does feature touches such as a leather-wrapped tilt wheel with illuminated audio controls, a new back-lit instrument array with information readout panel, a centre stack trimmed in faux aluminum, automatic climate control, power windows, mirrors and locks, a SmartPass keyless entry system and an upgraded audio system.
Safety systems include front, side and side curtain airbags, ABS-equipped four-wheel disc brakes and electronic stability control.
Given the high roof line, headroom is naturally fine, and the cloth-covered seats are comfortable enough with supportive bolsters, and are mounted a bit higher than in other compacts - another crossover element. The rear seat offers plenty of room for two and folds easily to provide a flat load floor. Cruising speed noise levels are acceptable.
Suspension is by MacPherson struts up front with a torsion beam system out back. Sixteen-inch alloy wheels are fitted with P205/60R16 all-season tires and steering is by a power-assisted rack-and-pinion system. It has enough weight that the front wheels actually respond to its inputs with a degree of enthusiasm thanks to springing and damping that's just firm enough to provide decent control over body motion. But we're talking more a crossover, than hot hatch, level of handling.
Which brings us to the drivetrain changes that include an all-new engine and new manual and automatic transmissions.
The new engine still displaces 2.0 litres, but with its 16 valves controlled by a variable timing system produces 150 hp at 6,200 rpm and 140 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm compared with the old engine's 143 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque. Torque is also spread over a wider rev range.
The earlier five-speed manual has been replaced by a six-speed and the four-speed automatic by a CVT. The latter proving something of a mixed blessing.
I've never felt the SX4 to be a particularly lively car and I'd guess (I haven't driven it) that the new manual box and the additional urge from the new motor improves performance quite a bit.
But the power gains seem to be sucked up in the vacuum cleaner drone the engine produces working with the CVT. And rather too-abrupt throttle tip-in means the revs fluctuate up and down any time you toe the go pedal, without any particularly rewarding improvement in the rate of forward motion. A more direct connection is provided by paddle shifters that select six discrete ratios, but who is going to use this feature all the time?
I admit I'm not a fan of this type of transmission, but this certainly isn't the best example I've experienced either. On the other hand, a lot of people at Suzuki obviously feel it gets the job done, which is why they offer it. And it does, after a fashion. Some, in fact, might not even consider it an issue.
The new engine and CVT transmission do improve fuel efficiency a skosh (or a couple of tenths per litre if you prefer) with ratings of 8.9 L/100 km city and 6.9 L/100 km highway.
The AWD system operates in three modes selected with a console-mounted switch that give you the option of front-wheel-drive, automatic all-wheel-drive or locked AWD, which can help you extricate yourself from mud or snow.
Suzuki has always made interesting products, whether high-performance motorcycles or cars and SUVs and the SX4 hatch continues that tradition with different-look styling, great practicality and something you can only describe as character.
2010 Suzuki SX4 JLX AWD
Type: Compact hatchback
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 150 hp/140 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city/6.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Kia Forte, Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Subaru Impreza, Chevrolet Cobalt, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Dodge Caliber