JEROME, Ariz. -- On route 89A, a cliff-hugging highway carved across the Weaver Mountains of Arizona, Suzuki's new fun-to-drive SX4 compact car charts a no-skid track around every hard corner.
All four 16-inch tires stick to the blacktop like a cat scatting zigzag across carpet because all of the engine's power is channeled to all of the wheels, thanks to the vehicle's computer-based all-wheel-drive system, dubbed i-AWD (intelligent all-wheel-drive).
It's standard issue on SX4, which reaches the U.S. market in the Class of 2007 with base and Sport editions.
The high-tech i-AWD device on SX4 works in three different modes, as directed by the driver from a switch on the console.
To maximize a tank of gas, you can switch the system to run in 2WD mode (front-wheel two-wheel-drive).
For auto-pilot operation and maximum traction, you can switch to AWD Auto mode and the system will automatically disburse the engine's power between the front and rear wheels with up to 50 percent going to the rear ones, depending on the traction available.
For slippery road conditions like mud or snow and slow-go travel below 35 mph, you can switch to AWD Lock mode and the device will maintain power to all wheels with the rear ones getting between 30 and 50 percent at any time.
A smart AWD system is an increasingly popular choice for sure-footed traction in any weather, but here's the unique strategy Suzuki creates with SX4: This is the lowest-priced vehicle on the market with standard AWD.
For that figure, you get a well-equipped base edition of SX4 packing a four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission.
The powerplant, displacing 2.0 liters and rigged with dual overhead cams, delivers 143 hp at 5800 rpm plus torque of 136 lb-ft at 3500 rpm.
That's more than adequate pedal power, and it feels downright zippy when running in the second through even the fourth gear of the manual transmission.
A specially tuned four-speed automatic transmission is optional on SX4 for $1,000 more applied to the bottom line.
Fuel economy scores also look good.
In independent testing by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the SX4 with a manual transmission comes up with fuel-consumption numbers of 24 miles per gallon for city driving and as high as 29 mpg on the road.
With the automatic shifter, the fuel scores are still 24 miles per gallon in town but up to 30 mpg on a highway.
Suzuki's new car fits in the compact class, which officially makes it a pint-size product, yet the SX4 doesn't seem like an eensy-weensy econo-car because the cabin design -- with a tall wrap of windows, a high ceiling and plenty of elbow room due to the structure's broad wheel track -- feels downright spacious.
There's 41.4 inches of legroom for front riders and 35.9 inches of legroom in the backseat.
Shoulder room is also good -- 53.3 inches for the front seat and 52.8 inches for the backseat.
Two contoured bucket seats mount up front on either side of a floor-mounted center console, while the rear bench, notched with seats for two but space for three, has three headrests and a seatback that splits in two sections of 40/60 percent and folds down separately.
Design of the dashboard is clean and linear with an arching brow over the instrument cluster.
Three large analog gauges in the instrument panel contain silver bezels with white-on-black notations and orange needles for easy reading.
SX4's cabin carries four doors for passengers and a hatch lid at the tail to access the aft cargo compartment.
With rear seatbacks upright, there's still adequate stow space for gear at the tail.
With the rear seatbacks folded down, the cargo room expands to 38.1 cubic feet.
Our driver-seat time in SX4 includes lots of stop-and-go experience on city streets, that traction-challenging cliff work in the Weaver Mountains and one long day for a cross-state trek that proved to be surprisingly comfortable and enjoyable.
Fact is, we're captivated by little SX4 and find a lot of car provided for a low price.
The ride quality feels smooth and comfortable, thanks to a compliant independent suspension system with MacPherson struts in front and a torsion beam live axle at the rear, coil springs and gas-pressurized shock absorbers at all four posts and an anti-roll bar fore and aft.
Steering is precise and quick through a rack and pinion arrangement with power assistance.
And the fast-acting brakes show ventilated discs in front with solid discs in back plus power assistance.
For predictable straight-line stopping, Suzuki adds a standard four-channel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD).
And the Sport edition gets a traction control system (TCS) as well as a computerized non-skid device called electronic stability program (ESP).
Air bags are poised around the passenger compartment.
The standard issue includes frontal air bags for front seats plus front torso side air bags, and there are curtain-style air bags tucked into roof rails above side windows for front and back seats.
SX4 the base edition brings standard equipment like air conditioning, power controls for windows and door locks and the two exterior mirrors, and an audio system with AM/FM/CD/MP3 deck and four speakers.
An optional package of convenience gear includes a cruise control device and a leather-wrapped steering wheel incorporating remote audio controls.
SX4 Sport edition adds a keyless entry device and remote start system, automatic controls for the climate system, a six-disc CD changer in the dash with nine speakers, rails tinted to silver on the roof and foglamps in front fascia.
Suzuki whittles the entry price for 2007 SX4 at $14,999.