Special Coverage

Ward’s Auto Interiors Show

Every vehicle, no matter how inexpensive, must have redeeming social value to find success in the marketplace.

Consumers are a savvy lot, and they can sniff out cost-driven corner-cutting like bloodhounds. It’s hardest to pass muster with economy cars, which auto makers often import from low-cost regions of the world because building them in the U.S. is like striking a match to a suitcase full of cash.

There are ways to make small cars inexpensive: downsize the engine and wheels; plug in a basic manual transmission; and forgo antilock brakes, stability control, auto-dimming mirrors, cruise control and maybe even air conditioning and power windows.

But auto makers such as Suzuki Motor Corp. know better than to punish budget-conscious customers with a passenger compartment that equates to a penalty box.

The Suzuki SX4 sedan takes top honors in the “Economy-Priced Car” category of the 2008 Ward’s Interior of the Year competition, besting entries from better-known auto makers (Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co.).

This year’s competition among the four entries in the segment wasn’t even close, as the SX4 scored significantly higher than the Scion xD, Chevy Aveo and Ford Focus. Last year’s winner in the segment was the Honda Fit.

To qualify for the category, test vehicles needed sticker prices below $16,999. The SX4 passed that test ($16,370), arriving at the port of Tacoma from Japan.

The SX4’s interior made this year’s list with style and grace and a dashboard that offered a clean, simple alternative to the button-happy center stacks that have made some higher-priced models too complicated.

The faux metallic trim surrounding the audio and climate controls and on the leather-wrapped steering wheel sealed the deal for most Ward’s judges, adding an unexpected, well-conceived touch of class in a segment often neglected.

“Very nicely done – good seats, lots of headroom, very comfortable all around,” writes one Ward’s editor on his SX4 scoresheet. “Well executed, with low-gloss finishes and attractive textures.”

Another editor notes the small windows at the base of the A-pillars “provide excellent sight lines when cornering,” while a third judge credits the SX4 for “good ergonomics and build quality.”

Buying a car is a difficult, emotional process, particularly at the bottom of the market. But an inexpensive car doesn’t have to be a cheap one, as Suzuki so ably proves with its SX4.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com