In recent years, Suzuki has acquired a reputation for being a bit of a one-car company. That's not surprising because it's very hard to look past the incredible success of the Swift supermini: it's a thoroughly conventional small car, but it's also been a smash hit in its past two generations and has certainly been responsible for thrusting the Japanese brand right into the spotlight in New Zealand.
Swift just seems like the right car for the times: it was the No 2-selling passenger car in NZ last year.
But spare a thought for what has now become the lesser-known Suzuki: the one with a history of innovation and expertise in four-wheel-drive vehicles. The Vitara arguably brought the worlds of off-roading and lifestyle family transport together long before the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V came along.
Granted, those makers created a new genre by dropping all the hard-core off-road equipment (something Suzuki still refuses to do in the latest Grand Vitara), but Suzuki still blazed the trail by making a compact four-wheel-drive vehicle that was trendy and desirable to urban types.
That's what you call lateral thinking. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it fails, but you have to admire those who try.
The Suzuki SX4 shows the same type of lateral thinking. When it was launched in 2006 it was a novel kind of compact-crossover: a small hatchback with huge glass areas and high seats, riding on a chassis with a brilliantly simple four-wheel-drive system called i-AWD.
Practicality and city-friendly exterior dimensions were countered with a surprisingly well-balanced chassis that loved to play on loose surfaces. The i-AWD system let you flick between front-drive, on-demand all-wheel-drive and a 50/50 torque split for off-road work. You could take it to the bowling club or take it down a rally road. A small car with a dual personality, capable of surprises.
The SX4 i-AWD continues in the facelifted SX4 range, but it's not a model that's easy to overlook. Since 2006, Suzuki has expanded the SX4 in all kinds of ways, including a conventional front-drive-only version. It has broadened the lineup and generated more sales; but plenty of larger crossovers are also available sans-AWD. However, for a car of the SX4's size, it means a transformation from a quirky and accomplished crossover to something that seems like just another small car.
In case you hadn't guessed, I'm a fan of the SX4 i-AWD. Especially as the facelifted version sticks very closely to the original formula.
There's some minor sprucing-up on the outside and in the cabin, you're now treated to a Garmin touch-screen satellite navigation system that integrates Bluetooth cellphone connectivity. That's about it, really.
That's okay, because I reckon this $31,990 machine is still a great little thing. The 2.0-litre engine is generous for a vehicle of this size, although it's not overly thrifty: 8.0 litres per 100km looks a bit average these days in a compact hatchback, especially one with the supposed efficiencies of a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).
Yes, CVT. Not my favourite gearbox technology, but it works well in this application because you have the traction advantages of i-AWD in wet or loose-surface conditions, which prevents the CVT from going hysterical when the going gets tough.
My tolerance for this CVT might have something to do with fond memories of the six-speed manual formerly offered with this vehicle. It let you get the best out of the engine and i-AWD; particularly the latter, which plays such a big part in bringing the SX4's chassis to life. But the manual has been deleted due to lack of interest. Shame.
The SX4 i-AWD remains unique, sitting in between the supermini and small-car segments and driving all four wheels in a very pleasing manner. Ironically, Suzuki has managed to make this model even more invisible by facelifting the front-drive version to look just like it.
It even has some real competition cred, providing the base for Suzuki's World Rally Championship (WRC) contender in 2007-8. Glory days and all that ...