When gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon this year and credit markets dried up, many sport utility vehicle owners tossed their babies out with the bath water. Drivers broke leases, unloaded their rides for pennies on the dollar and traded down to teeny-tiny economy cars in order to save a few bucks at the pump and on their monthly nut.
It was a necessity for some, an overreaction for others. In either case, they were forced to give up what they really wanted to drive in the name of fuel efficiency and frugality.
Now that regular is back under $3, a lot of them are feeling pangs of regret every time they pass a dirt road, wishing they could take a right and check out what's been going on in the great outdoors over the past couple of months. Some will take the chance and go back to their old ways, buying back into the SUV world. But even if a return to $4 gas and Dow 5,000 isn't in our immediate future, the fear of volatility has likely turned many off expensive gas guzzlers for good.
Enter the Suzuki SX4 Crossover.
No, it's not a truck; it's not even an SUV — it's a compact car. But it’s the lowest priced vehicle available with all-wheel drive and is kind of vaguely shaped like the Playmobil version of an off-roader, so let's give it a look.
With a base price of $15,939, the SX4 fits cleanly into the economy-car category. It comes well equipped with air conditioning, an XM-ready satellite radio with CD player, anti-lock brakes, stability control, six airbags, a 100,000 mile/7-year power-train warranty, and something very unexpected at this price, a navigation system.
Rather than try to stick you with an in-dash unit that costs thousands of dollars, Suzuki hooked up with Garmin to integrate one of its portable NUVI units into the SX4, where it lives in a pop up receptacle on top of the dashboard. It's not a perfect solution, but a clever one.
Inexpensive, and better than having to buy your own to stick to the windshield with a power cable taking up a 12 volt socket. It uses the car's audio system to speak directions, but doesn't have voice recognition, necessitating a long reach forward to operate it.
What did you expect at this price?
My test car was outfitted with the midlevel technology package that starts at $16,788 and adds all-wheel drive, cruise control, and a leather steering wheel with audio controls. It also upgrades the Garmin to include MSN Direct with live traffic, weather, gas prices, local movie times and a number of Internet services like news and stocks.
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You get 12 months of service free and a subscription costs either $50 a year after that, or $130 for the life of the device. It also has a Bluetooth phone connection and will store music files, which is good because the standard stereo doesn't have an auxiliary jack.
The Garmin worked pretty well, though the traffic reports weren't always spot-on and the address book wasn't completely up to date. While looking for a car wash to shine up the SX4 for the accompanying video review, it directed me several miles out of my way to one, then to another location that no longer existed. Sorry, Suzuki, your car needs a good scrubbing, but that's the point of buying a Crossover anyway, right?
In all fairness, the company says most customers are looking for all-weather traction, not off-road ability, which goes the same for the larger SUV market as well. The SX4 has ambitions, however, and you can actually toggle the drivetrain between front-wheel drive, an automatic all-wheel drive setting that sends power to the rear wheels when needed or permanent all-wheel drive for especially bad conditions.
Since the roads near FOX World Headquarters in New York didn't get any snow in early October this year, I took the SX4 to the mountains in search of some filthy stuff to play in ... purely for the purposes of this evaluation.
On the way there and throughout the few days I spent with the car, I was surprised at how solid the entire package felt. From the accurate, if hefty, 5-speed manual transmission to the just-right feel of the materials on the dash and throughout the cabin, there are few major faults in the Japanese-built SX4.
There is wind noise, unavoidable with so much glass and a tall profile that stands head and shoulders over most cars, but everything else inside is hushed by compact standards. Even the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is smooth with a nice low burble rather than a buzz at cruising speed, and it never gets unpleasant even with the accelerator to the floor.
Unfortunately, I had it there often.
Despite delivering a reasonable 143 horsepower, the engine struggles with the SX4's 2,855 pounds, about 200 more than the similarly priced and powered Honda Civic. Some of the sloth can be chalked up to the weight of the all-wheel drive system, but that knowledge doesn't make the car any faster.
It does track straight and true on the interstate. On curvy roads, the upside of the weak engine is that the front wheels aren't overburdened, so they stay planted. But the high, upright seating position that provides good space for 5 passengers emphasizes the turning forces transmitted to your torso, encouraging you to mind the signs that tell you to slow down for them.
Cargo space is exceptional with 16 cubic feet available behind the rear seats and 54 when you fold them down. If you really need to load it up, the SX4 has standard roof rails and Suzuki offers a number of reasonably priced racks and boxes as accessories. It may not be a Hummer, but for a ski or mountain bike trip for two, it should do the trick.
Nearly 7 inches of ground clearance will make your life a lot easier as you head up the gravel access road to the parking lot, and makes the SX4 high enough to do a little exploring beyond that. On a muddy mountain trail full of half-foot deep puddles and sections of bedrock protruding from the dirt, I hardly needed to dip into the all-wheel drive at all. Only when I reached a rather steep slope with rocks that would've been tough to walk over did I have to give up and turn around.
When I did, I locked the SX4 in all-wheel drive, got my foot in it, and tried to slip the car up on the return trip. As the speed rose, the ride got bouncy, but the suspension never bottomed out, and the car never got out of control. If not a rally car, this is a nice little dirt road runabout that can do things that would make a Ford Focus call in sick.
So, what's wrong with it? Well, you can’t tow anything, so you’ll have to trade the Sea-Doo in for a Coleman inflatable kayak. More important for most, fuel economy for the chubby little guy is a less than exciting 21 city/28 highway, better than the three-row SUV you traded in for it, but hardly impressive for a compact.
Still, when you put those numbers up against the SX4's closest all-wheel drive competitor, the more expensive and lower to the ground Subaru Impreza Outback Sport rated at 20/26, they look pretty good.
The view is all the more better from the top of a mountain, even if it’s a small one.
SUZUKI SX4 CROSSOVER
Base Price: $15,939
As Tested: $16,789
Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback
Engine: 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder
Power: 143 horsepower, 136 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual
MPG: 21 city/28 highway
What do you think of the SX4 Crossover?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.