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Click to view picture gallery“Hot on the heels of
  the enjoyable Swift
  supermini comes
  Suzuki’s four-wheel
  drive SX4 4GRIP —
  an eye-catching
  ‘crossover’ that also
  forms the basis for
  Suzuki’s new World
  Rally Championship
  challenger. Sounds
  interesting, doesn’t it?
  Then read on...”

UK DRIVERS have something
of an on-going love affair
with so-called
'crossovers'. Their ardour shows no signs
of cooling — and it won
't, not while manufacturers keep introducing new models for them to buy. Even those
with a penchant for the bigger boys
' 4x4s will be aware of Suzuki's new SX4 — probably best described as a clever mix of 4x4 sports utility vehicle and supermini.

Suzuki's all-new SX4 ships as a distinctive 5-door hatchback that unifies the characteristics of sporty compacts, exemplified by Suzuki's own Swift with those of lightweight SUVs such as the Grand Vitara to create a smarty-looking (a friendly blend of cheeky and smart) small car alternative. Following the new Swift and new Grand Vitara, the SX4 represents Suzuki's third global strategic model and, more interestingly, it also forms the basis for its new World Rally Championship challenger.

The UK line-up comprises five models, four of which are powered by a 106bhp 1.6 litre VVT petrol engine: a front-wheel drive model in either GL or GLX grades starting at 9,999, the latter with manual or auto-matic transmission and the range-topping 4GRIP GLX with selectable/ automatic four-wheel drive that costs 12,999. The 119bhp six-speed 1.9 litre DDiS diesel is powered by a highly-flexible engine supplied by Fiat is also available, costing 12,799. Whichever one you choose, it has been designed to combine enjoyable driving dynamics, 4x4 capab-ility, high levels of practicality and styling that suggests a freestyle approach to life. We've just spent an enjoyable week with the flagship 4GRIP model.

A quick look round the outside is reassuring. The paint finish is excell-ent and panel fit tight, with neat colour-coded door handles, satin black roof rails and distinguishing large headlamps units cut back into the front wings. Distinctly SUV in appearance, the SX4 features a host of off-roader styling cues with pronounced wheelarches, side protect-ion mouldings, side under protection mouldings and front and rear skid plates. Alloy wheels and a rising waistline and triangular windows ahead of the front doors endow the sporty wedge shape with presence beyond its compact size.

The cabin is light and airy with a two-tone interior that's predominantly black, highlighted with metallic coloured accents. The facia is refreshingly uncluttered and housed in the centre stack panel is the audio system and the controls for the fully automatic air conditioning. As on the Swift, the outside temperature, time and fuel consumption are all shown in a dedicated display set into the top of the centre stack.

The large A/C rotary knobs are easy to operate and have ring lights incorporated into their castellated metal-look edges. Not only do they look rather swish, but they work with a lovely smooth, tactile action. In a pod immediately in front of the driver is a crystal clear three-dial cluster comprising a central speedometer flanked by a rev-counter
and fuel/temperature gauge, all of which provide key information at a glance. Likewise, the controls, air vents and switchgear are easy to use and all function with polished precision.

Standard kit is generous and includes: fully automatic air-conditioning, a CD player, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, electric windows, power operated and heated door mirrors, electric power steering, tinted glass, twin front, side and curtain airbags, ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution, alloy wheels, roof rails, front fog lamps and remote central locking. The keyless entry/start system is also standard and means you never have to take the electronic key out of your pocket or handbag when locking, unlocking and starting the SX4.

Good seat heights, large door openings and high ground clearance combine to make getting in and out of the SX4 easy. Once inside, the cloth-upholstered contoured seats ensure comfortable long-distance travel — helped by ample head, shoulder and leg room even for the rear passengers. Drivers will find that setting a first-rate driving position is not compromised by the leather-rimmed steering wheel only adjusting for rake.

There's room for five adults, but four is a better number as the trans-mission tunnel steals foot room from a middle rear-seat passenger.
The rear seats are set slightly higher for rear occupants to enjoy an interesting view out as they travel happily on their journey, thanks to
a restful backrest angle. Two adults travelled comfortably in the back on several 100-mile round trips during our week-long test and both climbed out feeling fresh.

The 60:40 split rear seatbacks fold down individually to boost space
for long items while still seating either one or two rear passengers. Alternatively you could simply pull on a cord and the rear seat backs fold forward on to the base to create an almost fully flat load floor which increases luggage space in the regular-shaped load bay from 270 to 625 litres. Although rear parking sensors are fitted, and they are welcome, the over-the-shoulder rearward visibility is good enough not to have to rely on them.

A number of useful storage compartments are spread throughout the cabin and all doors feature good-sized pockets and large bottle holders. A concealed pull-out tray fitted under the front passenger's seat is especially handy.

The banner feature of the SX4 4GRIP is its switchable intelligent All Wheel Drive (i-AWD). An Electric Control Coupling Device provides three settings, each available to the driver at the flick of a switch alongside the handbrake: 4WD-Auto, 4WD-Lock and 2WD. Under normal driving conditions, while in 4WD-Auto mode there is no torque transfer to the rear — the 4GRIP effectively operating as a front-wheel drive car, which is also great news for fuel economy. However, the moment there is pronounced front wheel slip, torque is automatically apport-ioned to the rear wheels to produce stability-enhancing all-wheel traction. This 4WD-Lock mode is then maintained up to around 40mph before automatically switching over to 4WD-Auto — the default all-weather mode — for smooth cruising.

Quite a bit of the SX4 — especially the chassis — is shared with the agile new Swift and out on the road it definitely shows. Compact external dimensions (13 feet 7 inches long and 5 feet 9 inches wide), combined with an efficient turning circle of 10.6 metres, make the SX4 pretty manoeuvrable even in tight urban streets. The rack-and-pinion steering is light but it responds accurately to the helm. Fortunately — yes, we did say 'fortunately'! — we experienced some extremely stormy weather during our test and the SX4 had a chance to show how well it handles. Body control is good, and there's superb traction in all conditions.

More good news is that as well as being dynamically competent and predictable, the SX4 is happy to let its driver have some fun. Left
to its own devices in 'Auto' for on-demand all-wheel drive, the 4GRIP
is more than willing to partake in some high jinks, made possible by its fine levels of grip. No, it doesn't claim to be an Impreza WRX, but it does go to show that you don't have to spend mega-bucks to enjoy some honest driving entertainment. The brakes — ventilated front discs and leading-and-trailing rear drums — provide all the stopping power you'll need, whenever it's needed.

The SX4 also rides comfortably. A touch on the firm side perhaps, but pliant enough. High-speed stability is also reassuringly enhanced by
a seating position that's further from the road than the average car. From outside you might think the 'split' A-pillar treatment would restrict forward vision but, thanks to the fixed glass quarter-lights, they rarely do. As well as contributing to the ride comfort and grip, the 205/60 Bridgestone rubber fitted to the 5-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels generate little road noise and long journeys can be made in comfort and safety.

The SX4's double-overhead cam 1.6-litre petrol engine puts out 106bhp. That's enough to power it from zero to 60mph in a brisk 11.5 seconds and the 4GRIP zips up to the legal limit very quickly. Top speed is 106mph. As well as variable valve timing, the 16-valve 4-cylinder engine also features drive-by-wire throttle control for good driveability and response and, with 107lb ft of torque at 4,000rpm, the SX4 has more than enough go. For the snappiest pick-up you need
to work the five-speed 'box. Doing so is no hardship as the 1.6 motor
is smooth and willing and the short shift action feels well-engineered. Even driving hard, our test car returned a favourable combined con-sumption of 38.9mpg. Not bad when you look at the official consumpt-ion figures of 31.7, 39.8 and 46.3mpg respectively for urban, combined and touring.

The SX4 comes with a 4-star Euro NCAP rating. Passive safety is well addressed with height-adjustable front seatbelts with pretensioners and force-limiters, a full complement of airbags, 3-point rear belts and Isofix child seat anchors. Also contributing to the SX4's passive safety is the commanding driving position. And, particularly impressive for a small car, the SX4 also received 3-star Euro NCAP pedestrian and child protection ratings. Active safety is well looked after by the automatic all-wheel traction and ABS with electronic brake-force distribution.

Following on from the impressive new Swift, the SX4 4GRIP delivers not only strong driver appeal but also appealingly funky looks and very good value for money. That should be more than enough to tempt any reasonable person at least into taking a test drive. And when they do, like us, they'll find they are pleasantly surprised by just how good Suzuki's off-road supermini is. And that's highly likely to be much better than you might have imagined.

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Suzuki SX4 1.6 VVT 4GRIP GLX
| 12,999
Maximum speed: 106mph | 0-62mph: 11.5 seconds
Overall test MPG: 38.9mpg | Power: 106bhp | Torque: 107lb ft

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