When an automaker wants you to sell you a vehicle like the 2008 Suzuki SX4, they'll put together an ad featuring people who seem to spend their entire life riding mountain bikes, chugging energy drinks and otherwise enjoying a kind of lifestyle that exists predominately in the glossy pages of men's magazine. Needless to say, climbing class three mountains isn't how I spend my weekends. Thankfully I know a few people who do.
I should have known what I was getting into early Saturday morning when my friend Jane called to let me know she'd be late because she had forgotten she had a rock climbing class to teach. It actually worked out, because I had forgotten I wanted to spend another couple of hours in bed eating Cheerios while updating my online book list. I also needed to see if the SX4 would be able to be hold all our gear because that famous Chicago wind was acting up, meaning that hoisting bikes onto the roof wasn't the best idea.
Though the SX4 has a rather small footprint, the tall greenhouse and folding seats mean that it can hold all the active lifestyle accouterment we brought along, plus Jane and her fiance Kevin. I should clarify here, my gear was a pair of hiking boots, a camera and a cooler full of sandwiches. Their gear included two bikes, bike accessories, helmets, cleaning supplies, assorted hiking gear and another cooler full of snacks (biking burns calories). The SX4 swallowed all of this without too much Tetris, though Kevin was staring down a set of handle bars for the long drive out to the Palos Forest Preserve southwest of town.
When we got to the biking staging area we found some other, intense looking bikers and their assorted E-series vans, Saab wagons, WRX's and even an Aveo with a roof rack, thereby blowing a hole in my theory that only high school girl's drive Aveos as their first car. According to the Chicago Area Mountain Bikers site, Palos is the "grand daddy of the trail systems available in Chicago... The area has hills, rolling widetrack, tight twisty singletrack, climbs, fast descents and plenty more to keep you satisfied for hours." And this beats a Howard Hawks film festival how?
After unpacking the bikes and assembling them, we stopped to setup for some pictures. My conception of what you wear for an outdoor adventure was a little different from what they actually wear, as you can see from the picture above. I quickly changed back into my normal normal clothing and left them to their off road fun. For me, the fun was to be had on the roads.
This is where the SX4 abandons all the pretense contained in the black plastic wheel arches, metal-look skidplates and fog lights. The roads running through and around the forest preserve include a surprisingly engaging mix of gravely uphill curves, downhill straights and even a few esses that make you wonder why anyone gets out of their cars. Maybe because they aren't driving something as fun as the SX4.
The car simply drives with more poise than any vehicle in this class should. This particular model featured Suzuki's three-mode intelligent AWD system, which offers the option to send all the power to the front wheels, to all wheels on demand or to lock the transfer case into a full 50/50 split. I kept it keyed into the auto mode and found you had to push the SX4 hard into a corner before significant power was transferred rearward, giving the little hatch enough energy to propel it into the next straightway.
While Kevin and Jane attempted to find the limits of their abilities I tried to find the limits of the SX4 and was pleased to discover that this was a difficult task. There's not much noticeable roll when guiding what is essentially a tall wagon around the turns. The suspension is aggressively tuned for a small economy car that competes with Scions, but the ride isn't overly harsh. If there's one obvious complaint it's that the all-black, unadorned shifter looks like it's been taken out of the bargain bin at a Boy's Town sex shop, but the easy clutch action means you're not likely to be staring at it long.
In the lower gears there's a steady stream of manageable power to be had from the 2.0-liter, DOHC fourbanger, which puts out 143 horsepower and 136 lb/ft of torque. Though you may not want to race for pinks at your local drag strip, there's enough oompf left to keep you entertained in all but the longest straights. And entertained you'll be. All of a sudden I looked at the clock in the smartly designed info strip above the center console and realized I had to get back from, well, I wasn't sure where I was at this point. Thankfully, Kevin had packed an extra trail map for me and I was able to work my way back to the original staging area.
When I got there, Kevin jokingly asked if I'd like to "actually see nature" by going for a short hike. I agreed, not knowing a short hike meant more than an hour, and we loaded the gear back into the Suzuki. Here's where the SX4 really shines as an "outdoor lifestyle" vehicle. The ergonomic interior doesn't merely store all of our stuff, it manages to do so without getting damaged. The seats tumble all the way forward and the synthetic seat covers and interior plastics take a lot of abuse without damage, leaving every scrape and chunk of dirt to be easily wiped out.
The bikes once again stowed, we headed out for this "nature" everyone talks about. Though the hiking trails are varied enough to be entertaining and open up to a shallow lake rimmed by striking green grassland, I couldn't help but wish I was back on the road. That says a lot for this vehicle considering its fully-loaded test price is less than $17,000.
Though the SX4 does have its shortcomings, most strikingly the amount of cabin noise you're subjected to as the engine whines above 80 mph, you'd be hard-pressed to find another new vehicle for this price that not only gets you to your "off the beaten path" adventure, but makes getting there the fun part.