By Warren Brown
Sunday, December 27, 2009; F01
This week's column was to feature the 2010 Hyundai Tucson, a vastly improved compact crossover utility vehicle driven earlier this month in California.
But the Tucson was upstaged by a blizzard and an unlikely hero back home in Virginia.
I'll get to the new Tucson, probably next week. For now, I'd like to introduce the 2010 Suzuki SX4 Sportback, a little wagon with lots of heart.
I'll say up front that I was disappointed to find the SX4 Sportback in my driveway after returning from California. I drove its sibling SX4 Sport sedan last year and was not impressed. It was a cheap-feel economy car masquerading as a sexy performance automobile -- more hype than reality and no match for comparable Ford Focus, Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla models in the real world.
But that was the 2008 SX4 Sport sedan.
The 2010 SX4 Sportback wagon is something else. It competes well with everything in its class. It made me wonder whether I was too harsh in criticism of its Sport sedan relative. But I don't think so.
Fit and finish in the 2010 wagon are discernibly superior to what I experienced in the 2008 sedan. There is much less engine noise and vibration, although there is more engine horsepower (150 now versus 143 then) and more torque (140 foot-pounds compared with 136).
Suzuki has long offered more amenities than expected in an economy car, such as onboard navigation with real-time traffic and weather information, which also are found in the new SX4 Sportback wagon. But in this iteration, it all seems to make more sense.
My wife, Mary Anne, has a theory. She thinks I have a more favorable opinion of the SX4 Sportback because it did something I never thought it could or would do. It performed beautifully in last weekend's East Coast blizzard. She could be right.
I panicked when snow started falling late that Friday night. I worried about the weather -- nasty, slippery, side streets quickly accumulating snow. With chagrin I considered the car -- a compact, front-wheel-drive wagon, 150-horsepower four-cylinder engine, six-speed manual transmission, four-wheel disc brakes, 17-inch diameter wheels shod with "all season" radial tires. Great for dry weather, I thought. But I figured it would get trumped by the snow.
I was wrong. The car was a mensch in a snowstorm.
It maintained its footing on wet, icy roads, never once hinting at skidding or swerving out of control. On several Northern Virginia side streets where snow was accumulating quickly, the SX4 Sportback displayed remarkable stability over what was fast becoming bumpy, lumpy compacted road ice.
Before that driving experience, I thought the car's independent front suspension and torsion beam rear suspension represented workaday, traditional chassis engineering. But, maybe, it's not the type of components chosen as it is the integrity of the pieces and the quality with which they are joined together. The SX4 Sportback's front tires gripped through the mush. Electronic stability and traction control, standard on the wagon, worked perfectly helping to compensate for my steering errors. I was, to use a term favored by my Britain-educated Malaysian friends, gobsmacked.
I parked the car as Friday night slid into Saturday morning and watched the little Suzuki disappear under the onslaught of snow. By late Saturday morning, it was completely covered. By snow's end Saturday night, there was only a lump in the landscape to mark its earthly existence.
Mary Anne and I dug it out Sunday and cleared the driveway best we could. I fired up the SX4 Sportback. It didn't miss a beat -- starting right away and traversing still snow-covered streets as if it were a four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.