Suzuki SX4 earns its stripes

It's a well-known principle of quantum mechanics that racing stripes make a car faster. Depending on the width and color of the stripes, accessorizing paint schemes can be good for as much as 2 seconds in the quarter-mile and 50 mph top speed.

No one knows why. Einstein spent years attempting to derive a Grand Unified Theory of Racing Stripes.

Consider our test car, a 2010 Suzuki SX4 SportBack. Ordinarily, you'd assume such a car — a five-seat troll, with a rear hatch that looks like a ripe diaper — would just be nailed to the asphalt. But add some rally stripes on the hood, more along the aero side skirts, and top it off with a silvery meatball on the hood and you've got a racy, capering little hot hatch that's respectably quick. Figure zero to 60 in 8ish seconds.

In addition to the paint job, the SX4 SportBack gets sassy little roof and chin spoilers and some other distinctive body bits.

Feverish, strung tight, with an exhaust note that sounds like Santa's elves caught in a wood chipper, the SX4 SportBack is the perfect car for those who think perfection is overrated.

The donor car for the SportBack is the SX4 crossover, which I've been touting since first driving it two years ago as one of the auto market's most underappreciated values. With all-wheel drive, standard navigation system and loads of power accessories and convenience features, for around $18,000, the SX4 crossover stands just about alone in the desirable AWD econobox segment.

The SportBack is the same car, only set to kill. Gone is the prop shaft driving the rear wheels, eliminating the weight and driveline losses of an AWD system. The 2-liter 4-cylinder gets a slight bump in horsepower (5 percent, to 150) and similar uptick in torque (to 140 pound-feet).

Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or a paddle-shifted continuously variable automatic. Our test car was kitted with the six-speed manual, and one of the perverse pleasures of this car is downshifting cruelly and revving the engine against the rev limiter like a maniac.

The sound? Imagine Lucy Ricardo stomping grapes in the vineyard, only the barrel is full of cats.

The Suzuki makes a virtue of a functional liability, and that is its vacuum of low-end torque. At any point less than 4,000 rpm, this engine is bereft of twist. If you attempt to take off from a stop in second gear, the car has the acceleration of a Russian novel. But above 4,000 rpm, the torques come on hard and fierce, and if you cane it, it seems to like it.

As you've heard me say before, it's more fun to go fast in a slow car than slow in a fast car. It's also a lot more economical: This Suzie gets 30 mpg highway.

The underpinnings of the SX4 SportBack are suitably reinforced: Lower ride height, stiffer springs and shocks, 17-inch wheels and racy Dunlop tires. That's the car you get when you drive off the Suzuki lot.

However, our test car had been further breathed upon by Suzuki's favorite tuner shop, Road Race Motorsports. It added a less-restrictive exhaust system and a cold-air intake. All that's good for maybe 10 extra horsepower. RRM kicked in beefier springs, a stouter anti-roll bar and racetrack-ready Dunlop Direzza Sport Z1 Star Specs (215/45-17).

Tires are the most important part of any car's ride-and-handling package, and these are just about the meanest, stickiest gumballs on the market. The fact is you could mount these tires on a Sealy Posturepedic, and it'd handle well. The SportBack bit nicely on turns. The steering was alert and lively. And the extra grip put more iron into the brakes. Excellent.

And so a reasonably flat-cornering, grippy and predictable little hatch is transformed into an ornery little vampire with the simple application of rubber.

And stripes. Don't forget the stripes.


Base price: $17,949

Price, as tested: $20,000 (estimated)

Powertrain: 2-liter, 150hp DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Torque: 140 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm

Curb weight: 2,732 pounds

0-60 mph: 8.0 seconds (est.)

Wheelbase: 98.4 inches

Length: 162.8 inches

MPG: 22 city/30 highway

Final thoughts: Good, clean noisy fun

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