If you're a commuter on a tight budget (and who isn't these days?), the 2009 Suzuki SX4 crossover provides an inexpensive, versatile vehicle that goes easy on gas.
This five-door hatchback comes with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive, which presumably allows it to be included in the ever-expanding crossover category, even if it looks more like a compact wagon.
Our tester had front-wheel drive and a 2.0-liter 16-valve, four-cylinder engine that made 143 horsepower and 136 pounds-feet of torque.
It was mated to a five-speed manual transmission; a four-speed automatic tranny is optional.
Gas mileage is listed at 22 mpg city, 29 highway, according to EPA.
On the all-wheel-drive models, there are three modes available with the flip of the console-mounted switch: front-wheel drive, for dry pavement; auto mode, which distributes power according to traction; and lock mode, which sends power to all four wheels for slow going in snow or mud.
The squat SX4, with 16-inch wheels, provides a surprisingly solid ride for a subcompact.
You won't feel the buffeting of the wind as tractor-trailers pass by you.
And the engine lets you keep pace with most traffic.
To add to its compelling value proposition, the SX4 is the first car in America with a sticker price that starts under $16,000 with a navigation system as standard equipment.
While standard nav systems are becoming more common in a number of models, you really can't get them in economy cars without paying a hefty premium.
The SX4 also comes with electronic stability control with traction control, nine-speaker sound system, keyless entry and start system, cruise control and leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls.
You might not expect to find an interior as sharp and clean as this one on an economy car.
Seating for up to five passengers is adequate, and the dashboard controls are neatly placed and easy to comprehend.
Six air bags are standard on the SX4, including side curtain air bags for front and rear passengers.
Also standard: power windows, locks and mirrors, remote keyless entry and a tire pressure monitoring system.
The covered cargo area in the hatchback has 9.5 cubic feet.
The rear seats fold and flip to provide a total of 22 cubic feet of cargo space.
Suzuki offers a 100,000-mile, seven-year limited warranty on the powertrain, along with what the company calls "24/7/365 roadside assistance."
The overall design of the SX4 really grew on us the longer we had it.
Like most crossovers, its tailgate opens to fold-down rear seats that provide additional cargo space.
From front to rear, the lines seem to form some sort of wedge, but that look is somewhat offset by its tall greenhouse.
The sizable windshield descends toward the hood, which has a bit of a curved shape that extends to the front fenders.
The triangular windows at the front end of the front doors are distinctive, but also functional, because they enhance visibility ever so slightly.
The driving experience was quite pleasant, despite a fair amount of engine noise at highway speeds.
The gearshift throws on the manual transmission were very well placed.
Sometimes at high speeds, we wished there were a sixth gear, and we couldn't help but wonder if that might have improved fuel economy just a bit.
Suzuki says the SX4 goes from zero to 60 mph in about 8.3 seconds.
While that's not blazing speed, it is surely enough to give you the right amount of push to merge onto busy freeways.
The sticker price for our tester was $16,373.
For all that you get, that's quite a value.
The SX4 is an economy car that makes sense, even in an economic environment in which little else does.
Body style: Five-door hatchback
Drive: Front-wheel; all-wheel optional
Seating: Two in front, three in rear
Engine: 2-liter inline four-cylinder
Transmission: Five-speed manual; four-speed automatic
Miles per gallon of fuel: EPA estimate 22 city / 29 highway