TRAVERSE CITY, MI — American Suzuki Motor Corp. planners looked upon the rolling landscape of the compact-sedan segment and detected a vacant spot in the middle.
In the high-rent hills, they saw relatively pricey performance cars such as the Volkswagen Jetta and Mazda3.
On low ground, they saw more affordable, but basic commuter cars such as the Kia Spectra and Toyota Corolla.
“What was missing was an emotionally rewarding vehicle at an affordable price,” says Eddie Rayyan, American Suzuki's product planning manager. “We saw the opportunity.”
The result is the all-new '08 SX4 Sport, a front-wheel-drive companion to the all-wheel-drive SX4 cross/utility vehicle. It will be marketed as a car for “life enthusiasts.”
The sedan goes on sale in October. It is the latest example of today's affordable compacts that are sporty and stylish — the antithesis of small-car econoboxes of the past.
Suzuki designers went for a dynamic look with the SX4 Sport. It is wedge-shaped, and its arched fenders give it an aggressive stance.
Backing up that boldness is a European-tuned suspension system, 4-wheel disc brakes, KYB shock absorbers and front and rear stabilizer bars to accentuate tight handling.
A 2L DOHC engine with a 10.5:1 compression ratio reaches 143 hp at 5,800 rpm. It is tuned for low-end torque with 136 lb.-ft at 3,500 rpm.
Although created by the same team that redesigned the Suzuki Swift, Rayyan says the SX4 Sport is superior to the Swift in steering and yaw response, skid-pad performance and body roll and brake-force control.
The Japanese-built SX4 sedan starts at $14,770, undercutting the Corolla and Honda Civic by about $2,000.
Additional charges include a $500 convenience package, $1,500 touring package, $1,100 automatic transmission and $625 in destination and handling fees.
During a media drive on curvy and sometimes wet roads in bucolic northern Michigan, the SX4 Sport shows solid handling and a connectivity to the pavement.
The interior is admirably roomy — an intended design feature. So is higher seating than normally found in a sport sedan, although the “in-command seats,” in combination with a short hood, initially create an odd perspective of not being able to see the hood from the driver's seat.
The engine is sufficient and Suzuki acknowledges it is not meant for flat-out performance levels. But it can strain, and the 5-speed manual, when in high gears, sometimes feels like it is in lower gears.
American Suzuki expects to sell 20,000 SX4 Sports a year.
The 22-year-old importer is on a roll, consistently breaking annual sales records, even though many Americans still think of Suzuki as just a motorcycle maker, says Gene Brown, American Suzuki's vice president-marketing.
Last year, it sold 100,990 vehicles of a 4-wheel kind, registering a 23% increase in 2006 compared with 2005, while industry sales overall decreased 3%.
Currently offering a 6-vehicle lineup, Suzuki plans to introduce four new models by 2011, including a midsize pickup truck next year and a hybrid-electric vehicle in 2010.
Suzuki's top U.S. car markets are Dallas/Fort Worth; Philadelphia; Tampa/St. Petersburg, FL; and New York City.
The top-selling Suzuki dealer is Lee Barlas of Suzuki of Lakeland (FL). His Suzuki of Orlando (FL) is the brand's No.2 top-seller. No.3 is Gary Lyman of Suzuki of Huntsville (AL), who had been No.1 for two years.