All-wheel-drive is no cheap date - usually.

Most compact sedans/wagons that offer this feature cost close to $20k or more. Sometimes, a lot more.

But for $15,270 you could buy the Suzuki SX4 hatchback wagon - and get not just standard AWD but also air conditioning, power windows and locks, an MP3-compatible stereo with CD player, 16-inch alloy rims, even remote keyless entry.

That's a package that's hard to beat.

The problem is, Suzuki often gets overlooked because it's such a small player in a very crowded field. Honda, Toyota, Mazda and Subaru dominate people's consciousness. But the fact of the matter is that none of those brands can match the SX4's lowball price and high level of features and equipment.

It's not even close.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The SX4 (all models, including the sedan) is powered by a 2.0 liter DOHC four rated at 143 horsepower. Compared with other compact, economy-type cars in the $15k or so price range, this is considerably better than average power. For example, the Toyota Corolla ($15,250) comes standard with a smaller, 1.8 liter four that's rated at 132 hp. The Honda Civic sedan ($15,010) also comes with just a 1.8 liter engine - with a rating of 140 hp. And these two are sedans (not hatchback version of either is available) and come only with front-wheel-drive.

Mazda's 3 does come in wagon form - and it offers more standard power (2.3 liters, 156 hp). It's a very nice car. But it is also a lot more expensive, at $17,925 to start.

And it does not even offer AWD.

Toyota's Matrix (a cousin of the Corolla) can be equipped with AWD - and offers a larger/more powerful 2.4 liter, 158 hp engine. But it, too, is much more expensive than the functionally very comparable SX4 - with a base price of $20,400. That is nearly five thousand dollars of difference.

No small thing - and hard to overlook.

Another AWD-equipped contender is the Subaru Impreza wagon. It boasts the most power of the bunch (2.5 liters, 170 hp) but also starts out far higher up the price ladder than the Suzuki, with an MSRP of $17,495. The Soobie's a great vehicle - but the price tag's not so great in comparison with what the SX4 offers for nearly $2,200 less.

As noted, AWD is standard in the SX4 - and you can choose a manual (5-speed) or optional four-speed automatic. (Toyota's Matrix does not offer a manual transmission with AWD.)

Zero to 60 in the SX4 with the 5-speed manual transmission takes about 8.3 seconds; automatic versions are more sluggish due to the wider gear spacing of the 4-speed transmission.

Mileage-wise, the SX4 is capable of 28 mpg on the highway and delivers 21 mpg in city-type driving. That's less than what you'd get in some FWD econo-compacts,but better than the AWD-equipped Impreza wagon, which manages 20 city and 27 highway.

HANDLING & RIDE

The SX4's no EVO or STi (the high-performance AWD versions of the Mitsubishi Lancer and Subaru Impreza) but that's not the intent. Suzuki tried to develop a car that has more utility than the standard econo-box sedan (via the hatchback wagon bodystyle) that also offers better handling performance on dry and wet/snowy roads (via standard AWD) while undercutting the would-be competition on price.

Triple aces on all three counts.

The AWD system lets you throw the car around at higher speeds with more confidence - especially if the road is wet or has gravel/sand on it - vs. what would feel comfortable in a FWD economy sedan. The SX4, like all AWD vehicles, not only has a higher threshold of grip in absolute terms - it also feels more balanced and less nose heavy because the weight of the powertrain (engine and transmission) isn't sitting almost entirely on top of the front axles.

The combo makes the SX4 fun to drive - as well as more capable than the typical FWD econowagon.

Ride quality-wise, the SX4 felt to me a lot like a typical current-year mid-sized family-type car. It's set up to be more of an everyday driver than corner burner, but that doesn't mean it wallows like a '95 LeSabre, either. If you're a hot shoe type you might want to fit some aftermarket struts/shocks to tighten it up a bit. But for most drivers, the SX4's suspension is a good compromise between flaccid - and fast and furious.

Buyer's Note: There's a new sport version of the SX4 sedan out this year that has a firmer-riding suspension and other ride/handling upgrades - such as standard 17-inch wheels and a structural brace. So far (at the time of this writing) these handling upgrades weren't slated for the SX4 wagon. But that might change as the model year progresses.

STYLING & UTILITY

The SX4's looks are either a plus or a minus, depending on what you think of them. The car is definitely not nondescript. The unusual shape (especially the unusually angled front quarter glass) makes for a an easy-to-spot little wagon that won't get lost in the crowd. I think it's snarky. You may think it's just ugly. But no one will say it looks like anything else in this segment.

Like other tall-roof hatchback wagons, the SX4 is more adept at handling other-than-basic-transportation chores, including carrying around oversized things like a small refrigerator. With the second row seats down, the SX4 has almost 40 cubic feet of cargo capacity. More can be carried by tying it down to the standard-equipment roof racks, too.

I liked the interior a lot - and not just because it looked tidy and sensible but also because of the generous headroom (at six feet three, many economy-type cars feel cramped to me) and unsually good forward visibility - due in part to the unsual forward quarter glass that extends into front fender (and down) to give the driver what I call "helicopter perspective." You can look down as well as directly ahead - and easily see things that would be harder to see in a conventionally laid-out sedan or wagon with a large, upright A pillar - and less glass area.

With a full set of gauges, most power amenities, a nice stereo and equally nice materials used for the dash and door panels, the SX4 doesn't look like a $15k El Cheapo Special. (I had an '09 Toyota Corolla a few weeks back that carried a sticker price of almost $19k - and it still had manual roll-up windows.) You can add leather trim and steering wheel audio controls if you want, but the important point is the as-it-sits SX4 is already very pleasant and has everything you really need even if you don't spend a cent on optional equipment.

QUALITY/SAFETY

Suzuki builds some of the best motorcycles available (including the world class GSX R series sport bikes) so the engineering talent is certainly there - and at least some of it has begun to transfer over to four-wheeled Suzukis such as the SX4. It appears to have been put together with skill by people who wanted it done right. I noticed nothing that suggested iffy build quality or skimping on materials and workmanship. If anything, the SX4 came across as considerably better than I'd have expected given its pricing - which is so much lower than most of its competitors. Clearly, Suzuki is trying hard to earn people's confidence - and their business.

As a further example of this, you can get both traction and stability control in the SX4. Yes, it's optional - but the point is few cars in the $15k price class even offer this equipment. ABS (with four-wheel-disc brakes) and side impact and head/curtain air bags are included in the car's base price.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

I very much enjoyed the week I spent knocking around in the SX4. It's not a fierce or a fast car, but it is a fun - and sensible - one. For the price of an econo-box you get get a car that has some personality, looks interesting and has AWD included. For me, the latter point is a big deal. Let me explain. I live in a rural, mountainous part of SW Virginia where the winters can be tough and people have a real need for a vehicle with either 4WD or AWD. Trucks and SUVs with 4WD are up to the job, but they are also expensive to feed and when "downtown" is 38 miles away, 15 mpg (at $3.40 per!) gets old, fast. That's why you see a lot of older AWD Subarus around here. They are intrepid, tough, easy on gas - and cheap.

Well, they used to be.

Which brings me back to the happy little SX4. It's a lot like the Subarus of the '80s once were - but aren't anymore. The least expensive of them pushes $18k before you add a single option. No slam on Soobies like the Impreza; they are still great cars.

But they are no longer inexpensive cars.

The SX4, however, still is.

BOTTOM LINE

It's hard not to be impressed by the SX4's triple play of low price, high equipment levels and standard AWD. It is a lot of car - for the money and otherwise.

Don't overlook it.