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Rocking it hard

Test Drive: Suzuki SX4 S-Cross 1.6 4WD (2013)

17/01/2014 09:26 |  Comments: 

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Our heavyweight champion, Balázs, or better known as Assur on the premises is the news writer of the mother site, totalcar.hu. Oh yes, he’s an automotive engineer too. They say there isn’t a data that has ever escaped his mind, all we know is that he can drop into any conversation about any car that was made after the war, and he’ll be able to add a ton of details you won’t ever be able to find in books. He has been thinking of selling his longserving Volvo for years, so he always has some used car adverts open on his computer, just in case. Has a wife and two (almost grown-up) children.

This must be the first true family car Suzuki has ever offered in Europe - meaning it has plenty of space without being a wobbly off-roader. It has the potential to become a breakthrough model and it is obviously a cornerstone vehicle for the company - which leaves us completely dumbfounded regarding the model name.

I really can't grasp what decision makers at Suzuki are thinking. First they left the Swift looking virtually identical to the previous generation, even though it was a brand new car, and also significantly more expensive than the outgoing model. They create something better and pretend nothing had happened. Then they repeat it with this compact model. They could have just named is S-Cross but no, they had to add 'SX4', pretending this is just an evolution of a model that actually remained available because there is nothing to take its place. This seems quite an awkward move, a disgrace to a car that deserves our full and undivided attention.

First of all, it has an altogether different personality. The original SX4 has never had any real character, and no facelift could change that. This was obviously the way Suzuki wanted it because the car was also sold as a Fiat. But with the S-Cross (I'll just stick with this name to keep the two vehicles apart) there was an apparent urge to create something unique. That is why there is a powerful belt line cresting over the front wheels, that's why the headlamps and rear lamps are shaped like an Arabian sword, and that's why the nose looks so weird.

This latter part seems to divide opinions. It instantly reminded me of the Splash with the tapering hood and the two-piece grille enclosed in a vertically stretched frame. Others could see nothing but an unusual design. Some said the car looked like it was treaded on, others called it a fish stuck in a spherical aquarium. No doubt some will loath the nose but others will like it or at least will not mind - and if it proves to slow down sales, Suzuki can always facelift the front of the car at relatively modest costs.

But the most important improvement was not the more assertive styling here but rather the larger dimensions - something that does not hit your eyes immediately when looking at the pictures. The SX4 was a disappointment in this respect: while it looked well sized, interior room was hardly better than in the Swift. On paper the S-Cross does not seem much larger - 15 cm longer, 1 cm wider and 45 mm lower than the SX4. But the wheelbase has grown a full 10 centimetres - a true divide between pathetic and great legroom. But beyond that, Japanese designers also seem to have improved their concept of packaging.

This has made the S-Cross feel like it's one (or even one and a half) sizes up from the SX4. It feels more spacious than most Golf-sized vehicles: it's on par with Nissan Qashqai and Opel Mokka. Of course it's not particularly difficult to manipulate one's sense of space with tricks like a curved dashboard or a panoramic sunroof but the S-Cross is a giant among Suzukis - among on-road Suzukis, that is. The boot size, a typical point of failure for Suzuki, has improved to a generous 430 litres with vertical sides and a double floor. It looks large enough for a family of four.

Of course Suzuki has always been a small car and off-road specialist and there are many details that still attest to that heritage. The worst bit is the instrument panel. For one thing, while solidly built, it is made of hard, rattle-prone plastic - this may be acceptable in a Swift but in a more expensive model like the S-Cross I was really expecting softer surfaces, at least where you actually touch them. Also, while the colours of the instrument panel are elegant, the bright blue rim of the main gauges looks way out of place - and to make things worse, the gauges have glowing red markings. This looks really cheap and could have probably been rectified at minimum extra costs.

Who'd have thought?

The S-Cross is the living proof that Japanese still have no idea about the mindset of Europeans. Their audio system does not have a touch screen and the number of controls is limited. It has loads of functions but accessing them is usually not straightforward. We wanted to listen to music via Bluetooth streaming but we could not connect the audio system with our mobile phone. We resorted to something unheard of: we read the manual.

Here's a short recap of the process: press a button on the instrument panel, press a button on the steering wheel, turn a knob on the IP, push said knob, then turn it again, utter a word, then turn-push-turn, and presto, you have the keycode that will allow you to pair the handset and the car. Simple and logical, isn't it? And we are talking about a function that you can set in any competing vehicle at the first try, with your hands tied behind your back, while waiting for the lights to turn green.

This proved to be a recurring issue in the S-Cross. High quality details seemed to alternate with rudimentary solutions for no apparent reason. The fit and finish of the instrument panel is absolutely praiseworthy but the door carpet is not only not flush with the IP, it is in, fact, way out of alignment even though they are obviously supposed to match. Or take the instrumentation: you have an on-board computer, keyless start, audio system and parking assistance - yet there is no satnav or a decent central monitor - the only display the car has to offer seems to be a leftover from the 1990's with its oversized pixels.

While Suzuki has built a practically brand new car they have failed to develop larger, more powerful engines to propel it. The S-Cross is available with two four-cylinder engines, both 1.6-litre 120 PS units. The diesel comes from Fiat and is supposed to be a good one, while our test car featured Suzuki's in-house petrol engine. Reading the specs did not make me particularly excited - a maximum torque of 156 Nm at 4400 rpm usually means one of two things: you can either drive peacefully and sluggishly, or you can rev the engine and travel in a cacophony of loud noises.

In reality this old school atmospheric engine proved to be quite a pleasant surprise. It launches with confidence from idle, pretending to be powerful as long as you don't floor the accelerator - when you do it acts as if it was choking on something. There is little improvement in power up to 4000 rpm where it starts to pull in earnest - with a proportionate increase in noise. I suppose this was the only way to comply with Euro6 emission standards and register an incredible 130 g/km CO2-emission. As you turn the drivetrain mode selector knob to Sport setting you seem to be rewarded with both better response and less of that choked-up feeling - the engine feels pretty much alive and kicking!

Driving the S-Cross you get the same feeling of ambivalence as when observing the interior details. The chassis is firm and pleasant, yet it's void of harsh jitters; the gearbox is precise and smooth but only has five gears; the brakes are powerful but overheat quickly after successive emergency stops. Steering is the only component I have nothing good to say about: while the steering wheel itself is pleasant to hold, there is absolutely no feedback from the front wheels, and there is too much assistance coming from the power steering while the steering ratio is rather direct. All of these combine to a car that has to be steered with feathrlight hands. And yet, this is a family vehicle that can be driven with no stress whatsoever, once you learn its quirks - if getting from A to B is all you expect of your car, you won't be needing more than that anyway.

Unfortunately there is one drawback that is very difficult to get over: namely the complete lack of noise comfort in certain situations. Pushed hard, the engine becomes downright obtrusive, and there really isn't any way not to do that once you leave the urban environment. Also, low frequency vibrations coming from the chassis are not fully filtered out, resulting in booming, throbbing noises on rough roads. Exacerbating the situation is the occasional creaking of some plastic panels which most competitors have gotten rid of by now.

Judging by its sheer size the S-Cross is not likely to be an almighty people's car like the Swift once was; certainly not at these prices. Suzuki is trying to capture sales from Nissan Qashqai with this new model and has priced it accordingly. A base specification front-wheel drive S-Cross costs €16.600 in Hungary, and while this is before dealer incentives it is certainly a lot higher than what typical Suzuki customers are used to. On the other hand the S-Cross is indeed somewhat cheaper than the Qashqai which starts at €17.160 with a similar 1.6-litre engine.

Of course that much money won't buy you the leather upholstery, the panoramic glass roof, the grey alloy wheels, the frog green paintjob or AWD - our test vehicle (1.6 VVT 4WD Elegance Plus) costs upwards of €25.670, or €28.330 with a diesel engine. Until Suzuki launches a more affordable entry model you need to settle for the older, smaller SX4 if you want a cheaper Suzuki - these are now available around €13.330 - or go for an even smaller model that can be had for under €10K.

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