Bangs for the buck

2008, Suzuki, SX4

It's much easier to spend a lot of money on a car than it is to spend very little. For example, how much new car can you get for, say, $18,000 or less? And how safe is it? How thrifty is it? How fun is it?

These questions have gotten much easier to answer in recent years, and they're likely to become even easier as time marches on. Contemporary concerns like "greeniness" and fuel-thriftiness are no longer mere afterthoughts; they're virtually requirements now. Some hide-bound manufacturers complain that small cars' profit margins are too thin considering how poorly they sell. But maybe they sell so poorly because their curb-appeal is so scant. If small, affordable cars were also fun to drive - perish the thought - perhaps they'd attract more buyers. That, at least, is what Kia, Suzuki and Nissan seem to have concluded.

Soozook has also been swinging at the long ball for years in hopes of hitting a home run in the subcompact commuter-car segment. It even got to the point where it fielded two self-competing models - the Forenza and the Reno - that the marketplace could scarcely distinguish from one another.

Now, Suzuki has seen the light, or more accurately, the Spectra, which brushes ForenzaReno aside and stands on its own four wheels. Styling of the Spectra SX4 is biased towards plucky and impish and away from actual elegance. The pug nose looks rather unfinished, but the 17-inch wheels underscore the Spectra's sporty intentions. So too does the 143-hp 2.0-liter twin-cam four, also with variable valve timing.

With slightly more horsepower than the Kia, Spectra also manages to eke out one more mpg of highway mileage: 23 mpg/city, 31 mpg/highway. Where it falters is with the four-speed automatic transmission, which both numbs the road-feel of the car and saps performance. A manual alternative is available - and recommended, even if it means taking a tutorial in proper clutch-pedal management.

The Spectra boasts a 14.3 cubic-foot trunk, which is generous for a subcompact. It's also a form of piracy, insofar as rear-seat legroom suffers as a result. Suzuki interiors tend towards bargain-basement materials and upholstery, and the Spectra is no exception. On the other hand, the placement and design of instrumentation is excellent - Fisher-Price for adults, so that no radio or HVAC operations are in doubt.

At $16,370, as-tested, the Spectra SX4 treads a bit deeper into bargain territory. Even anti-lock brakes come standard, in fact. Opt for the manny-tranny, though, and you'll not only save more dough ($1,100) but also have more fun.

What Nissan hath wrought with its remarkable Versa is to bring an element of adult respectability to the subcompact-car category. This is neither the most powerful nor the most stylish model in our trio; but it's no ugly duckling or slow-poke either. On the contrary, Versa seems to be a purpose-built urban commuter whose efficiencies are its greatest asset.

For starters, there's fuel economy on the order of 24 mpg/city, 32 mpg/highway. This is accomplished by a 122-hp twin-cam four displacing 1.8-liters. That's a lot of power to give up to its Kia and Suzuki rivals; but note the torque of 127 foot-pounds. That's a much more competitive figure, and it also suggests that Nissan has designed the Versa for torquey in-town behavior, not highway hi-jinks. Combination disk/drum brakes and front-only independent suspension tend to further confirm this suspicion.

The Versa's interior doesn't exactly qualify as upscale; but it's unobjectionable, and in place of hard plastic finishes, there's a soft-touch, "cushy" feel to door and dash surfaces. But by far the best accomplishment of the Versa's interior is its cargo-handling versatility. As a five-seater, Versa leaves room for almost 18 cubic-feet under the rear hatch. Then, when the rear seats are folded, voila! 50 cubic feet of flat-floored container space.

The Versa is a city-slicker and proud of it. It's designed for downsizers who've got bigger things on their mind. Versa parks tidy; totes plenty; and nurses its fuel. And it only costs $15,490 as-tested. Its straightforward exterior is neither kiddy nor giddy - it's for grown-ups who've learned that acting smart beats looking smart any day.

Kia seems poised to make silk purses out of sows' ears. Once generally shunned as the budget brand of last resort, Kia is now the budget king of hard times. More to the point, it's an automaker that has slowly but surely climbed the learning curve for making small, substantial cars that aren't an embarrassment to drive.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Kia's Spectra SX subcompact sedan is actually quite elegantly styled and fun to drive. Priced at $17,995, as tested, it just manages to "do the limbo" under the $18,000 threshold. But when you consider what you get for your money, you're likely to be impressed.

For starters, there's a tolerably spacious five-person cockpit that still leaves room for a moderately sized, 12-cubic-foot trunk. Underhood, there's a 2.0-liter twin-cam four-cylinder motor that employs computerized variable valve timing to produce 138 horsepower. Moreover, it does so while achieving 23 mpg/city, 30 mpg/highway.

These are all good numbers on paper; they also translate into decent, even fun, behavior on the road. With its slightly pricier SX trim, the Spectra earns 16-inch wheels and a sport-tuned, all-independent suspension. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, although anti-lock braking, curiously enough, is a $400 option. A five-speed manual transmission actually encourages extra sportiness; and unsuspecting drivers will find themselves being coaxed to push a little harder and corner a little deeper.

Is this delusional behavior in a tiny car making only 138 hp? Perhaps; but so what? If the illusion of enjoyment is also saving you money and fuel, well, whose bad is that?

Subcompact sedan; 4-door, 5-pass.; 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD, 5-sp. manual; 138 hp/136 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 30 mpg/hwy w/ regular; trunk: 12.2 cu. ft.; base price: $15,995; as-tested, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & opt. ABS disc brakes, AM/FM/CD audio, HVAC, 16-in. wheels, sunroof, front/front-side/head airbags: $17,995

Subcompact sedan; 4-door, 5-pass.; 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD, 4-sp. auto; 143 hp/136 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 31 mpg/hwy w/ regular; trunk: 14.3 cu. ft.; base price: $16,370; as-tested, w/ front ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, AM/FM/CD audio, HVAC, 17-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $16,370

Subcompact sedan hatchback; 4-door, 5-pass.; 1.8-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD, 4-sp. auto; 122 hp/127 ft.-lbs.; 24 mpg/city, 32 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 17.8-50 cu. ft.; base price: $13,450; as-tested, w/ front ind. suspension & opt. ABS disc/drum brakes, AM/FM/CD audio, HVAC, 15-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $15,490

By Marc Stengel

More Suzuki car reviews?

Images of the 2008, Suzuki SX4

2008 Suzuki SX4
2008 Suzuki SX4
2008 Kia Spectra looking right at ya
2008 Kia Spectra looking right at ya
2008 Nissan Versa 1.8S
2008 Nissan Versa 1.8S
2008 Kia Spectra from behind
2008 Kia Spectra from behind