BIG EAST FORK, N.C. -- On route 276, a highway carved across the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Suzuki's fun-to-drive SX4 X-Over charts a no-skid track around every hard corner.
All four 205/60R16 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 all-wheel-drive system, dubbed i-AWD (intelligent all-wheel-drive).
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 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.
In independent testing by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the SX4 with a manual transmission comes up with fuel-consumption numbers of 21 miles per gallon for city driving and as high as 28 mpg on the road.
With the automatic shifter, the fuel scores are 22 miles per gallon in town but up to 30 mpg on a highway.
Suzuki also builds the SX4 X-Over with FWD (front-wheel-drive) mode only, then adds a standard navigation system for a price point which dips below $16,000.
The SX4 navigation system, developed with Garmin, uses Navteq mapping software and has a 4.3-inch touch-screen display in the dash.
Suzuki's CUV 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.
The cabin has four doors for passengers and a hatch lid at the tail to access the aft cargo compartment.
Cargo room amounts to 10 cubic feet with rear seatbacks up, or 54 cubic feet with the seatbacks down.
The ride quality on a SX4 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).
Safety equipment increases on 2009 issues with a computerized non-skid device called electronic stability program (ESP) now on the list of standards.
The stock 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, fender flares and roof rails plus an audio system with AM/FM/CD/MP3 deck and four speakers.
A package dubbed Technology comes with gear like cruise control, an upgraded navigation system and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls added.
A second packaged labeled Touring for AWD-equipped models exclusively brings automatic climate controls and heated front seats, the SmartPass keyless entry and start system, heated side mirrors, a six-disc CD changer in the dash and a premium audio system with nine speakers, with exterior add-ons like fog lamps, aluminum-color roof rails and a tail spoiler.