2008 Suzuki SX4 Sport (© American Suzuki Motor Corporation)Click to enlarge picture

It's not the most fuel-efficient choice, but for those who want a small car that's fun to drive for less than $15,000, the SX4 Sport is an able candidate.

While fuel-conscious Americans have been snapping up subcompacts from Honda, Toyota and Nissan, their Japanese counterparts have been buying the kei, or mini-car, in record numbers.

These tiny hatchbacks make subcompacts look positively spacious. But with prices starting under $9,000 and fuel economy up to 54 mpg, it's no surprise that the segment accounts for more than 35 percent of all new-car sales in Japan.

What may surprise is that Suzuki has been the number-one kei brand for 33 consecutive years, only relinquishing the top spot to Daihatsu earlier this year. Although it's unlikely Suzuki will offer a mini-car in the U.S., it does have two models geared to appeal in this part of the world — the SX4 5-door and SX4 Sport sedan.

The new SX lineup takes over for the discontinued Suzuki Aerio cars. The SX4 5-door arrived last year, and Suzuki can barely build enough to meet U.S. demand. Now joined by the SX4 Sport sedan, the two will battle smaller entrants such as the Honda Fit, Chevrolet Aveo, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa and, at same time, face off against the well-established Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra.

Unlike the all-wheel-drive SX4, the SX4 Sport is front-wheel-drive only. The automaker is betting its new arrival will meet with equal success for two reasons: It's sporty, and it has a base price of just $14,770.

More Sporty Than Sport
The 143-horsepower rating of the SX4 Sport's all-aluminum, double-overhead-cam 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder engine puts it near the top in this class, but it's the torque curve that makes things happen. The 126 lb-ft start early and the torque curve is fairly flat across a wide band. By tuning the engine for more low-end grunt, 0 to 30 mph happens in just 3.4 seconds. According to Suzuki, this bests the 2.0-liter powerplants in the Mazda3 and Nissan Sentra. Though losing the 0-60 march (a yawning 10.2 seconds), it catches both in the quarter mile at a respectable 17.6 seconds.

The SX4 Sport's suspension features standard front and rear anti-sway bars, and the 17-inch alloy wheels are shod with Dunlop 50-series rubber. Traditional MacPherson struts ride up front, but in the rear Suzuki uses a torsion beam suspension. Although one would be hard-pressed to call the SX4 Sport "tossable," it is fairly nimble and tightens up nicely as you up the pace. And despite its tall body, the car doesn't feel tippy in corners. In a world where economy cars are often just driving appliances, the Sport feels peppy, agile and responsive.

Shifting gears with the standard five-speed manual transmission requires a deliberate effort, but the clutch engages quickly with little pedal effort. The optional ($1,100) four-speed automatic shifts succinctly, even during hard acceleration. Steering is properly weighted with good on-center feel, and the ride is solid without feeling numb. With less road and wind noise than you expect for the class, the Sport is a pleasurable small car.

Bright, Roomy Interior
Longer and wider than the Aerio models, the SX4 Sport's interior space is markedly improved. Even tall folks will feel at home in the front seats, where there's ample head-, leg- and shoulder room for the six-foot-plus set, while a tilt steering wheel makes it easier to find a comfortable driving position. Missing, however, is a driver's seat-height adjustment, a feature now common in the class. Two rear-seat passengers will find ample head- and legroom, although five adults would be a crowd.

The interior is one of Suzuki's best, illustrating the automaker's steps forward in layout and ergonomics. Glass all around is big, allowing for good visibility, while making the cabin seem bright and spacious. The deft blending of interior materials appears to be of high quality, with tight and consistent gaps between panels. The only mar is the rudimentary levers for the fuel door and trunk release poking out of a rough opening in the carpet.

Plenty of Standard Features
The SX4 Sport's long list of standard safety and convenience features belies its reasonable price. This includes advanced driver and front-passenger airbags, side-impact and side-curtain airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and a tire-pressure-monitoring system. Also standard are power windows, door locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; air conditioning; an AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system; a tilt steering wheel; floor mats; and the 17-inch alloy wheels.

A $500 convenience package adds cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with integrated audio controls, automatic climate control and heated outside mirrors. For an additional $1,000 the Touring package takes the convenience pack features and adds electronic stability and traction control, an upgraded audio system (six-CD changer and nine speakers), fog lights, a rear spoiler, and Suzuki's SmartPass keyless start.

Fun to Drive, But Not Too Frugal
If you want a small car that's fun to drive for less than $15,000, the SX4 Sport is an able candidate. Unfortunately, fuel economy isn't one of its strongest suits. With the standard five-speed manual transmission, estimated EPA fuel economy is 22 mpg city, 30 highway; with the automatic, the estimate is 23 city/31 highway. Certainly helping its cause will be its headline-grabbing 10-year/100,000-mile warranty.

With true performance versions available of the Mazda3, Civic and Sentra, and the Fit, Aveo, Versa and Yaris touting fuel economy, the Sport is staking out a narrow middle ground in a tough category. Strong on content, styling and comfort, its pricing should help keep it slotted among the best values in its class.

Larry E. Hall is editor of Northwest Auto News Service and a freelance automotive journalist based in Olympia, Wash. He has an intense interest in future automotive technology.

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