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2010 Suzuki SX4 (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
2010 Suzuki SX4 (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

2010 Suzuki SX4 Aero Hatchback

Suzuki runabout is a mini-crossover Add to ...

The Suzuki SX4 hatchback is a fine and unique subcompact vehicle. Unfortunately, it's priced like various great compact ones that offer notably more room.

So unless your local Suzuki dealer is feeling especially generous on pricing and finance rates, just be aware that the SX4's appeal as the lowest-priced all-wheel-drive car on the market may not translate to being the lowest-cost AWD car to drive off the lot.

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Dimensionally, the 2010 SX4 Hatchback is closest to Honda's Fit, yet it's priced closer to the Subaru Impreza and Toyota Matrix. These two are the closest competitors in spirit to the SX4 five-door, thanks to their versatile hatchback bodies and available all-wheel-drive (standard on the Subaru).

The SX4 sedan and hatchback start at $17,695 for bare-bones manual transmission models, and only the five-door offers on-demand all-wheel-drive, turning the little Japanese runabout into a mini-crossover. The hatchback's available all-wheel-drive models have MSRPs that start at $22,695, when equipped with the usual automatic transmission. That transmission becomes a continuously variable (CVT) unit for 2010, instead of the four-speed automatic previously offered.

Also new for 2010, Suzuki introduced a new Aero hatchback, the subject of this week-long test. The Aero comes in front-wheel-drive form only, but adds a touch of urban, instead of outdoorsy, visual flair to the tall and narrow SX4 five-door, thanks to larger 17-inch wheels, modest front, side and rear body cladding, plus a small spoiler at the hatch's roof edge.

The $22,195 Aero model slots in just after the (very) base and step-up JX models in content and price, and well south of the full-zoot JLX that lists at $24,695. But the only content differences were heated front seats and all-wheel-drive, which could explain why the SX4 Aero is labelled an "Aero JLX FWD CVT" model on the official dealer price list. That $2,500 difference is a sizable chunk of change for the price-sensitive buyers in this end of the market.

So as nice as bum warmers and all-wheel-drive are in the winter -especially an automatic slip-and-grip system like Suzuki's that also allows you to lock power to all four wheels at the touch of a button - winter tires and a strap-on heated seat cushion may be wiser investments here. It also makes the Aero hatchback look like a relatively good value, at least within Suzuki's lineup.

The SX4 does offer a healthy dose of interior features; it was much more pleasant to drive than a larger but less expensive Nissan Sentra S that I tested around the same time.

The Aero comes with steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, comfortable fold-down armrests for both front seats, a nine-speaker stereo that includes a subwoofer, and a new height-adjustable driver's seat, all worthy niceties that won't leave you cursing yourself for being such a tightwad a year after you buy it.

But the overall interior design is relatively dated, although some folks may have preferred to have both the six-CD changer and the new auxiliary input-equipped stereo that plays a single disc.

Lifting the SX4 Aero's user-friendliness considerably is the SmartPass keyless entry and go system. Not having to remove gloves to fumble around for keys in the cold is one of those little joys that you soon won't be able to imagine life without. Even after your wife drives away after dropping you off with the key in your pocket, stranding her as soon as she turns off the car.

Suzuki's system still requires a twist of the ignition lock instead of the trendier push-button type starters. Yet these twist-style ones are handier and potentially environmentally friendlier, because you can still turn on only the accessories without the engine - say when you want to program your handheld navi system without the engine running, or turn off the engine but keep the radio on uninterrupted to hear your favourite song or that last bit of news while you collect your belongings.

On the road, the Aero's newly updated 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine is a smooth and reasonably punchy mill, its output now up to 150 hp thanks to variable-valve timing. The elimination of the roof-rails in the Aero model also cuts down on wind noise compared to JX and JLX models.

However, the tall and thin body not only means that you and your passenger's elbows are constantly within bumping territory, it also means that the car feels like it could be scraping paint off the door handles with its constant leaning over in turns. Suspension settings have obviously been tuned for comfort in the SX4, even in this sportier Aero model.

Fuel economy for the Aero is a respectable 8.8 L/100 km city and 6.7 highway, but that's quite a bit more respectable for a small all-wheel-drive crossover than a front-wheel-drive subcompact. The SX4 hatchback is both, and competes with both, but it's certainly not among the most fuel-efficient subcompacts out there.

It's this dual personality that is both a draw and a curse for the SX4. It has the refinement and features of a larger vehicle, much like the upcoming Ford Fiesta, plus the added attraction of available all-wheel-drive, but at a price that's closer to larger and more practical vehicles.

This may be fine if you're a downtown animal where parkability is key, but the handling and dated design values make even this updated SX4 still seem a step behind the times.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

2010 SUZUKI SX4 AERO HATCHBACK

Type: Subcompact hatchback

Base price: $22,195, as tested, $23,890

Engine: 2.0-litre, inline-four-cylinder, DOHC

Horsepower/torque: 150 hp/140 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual (optional CVT)

Drive: Front-wheel drive (optional AWD on non-Aero hatchbacks)

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.8 city/6.7 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Fit, Hyundai Elantra Touring, Kia Rio5, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Matrix

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