Wednesday 17 January 2018

Winter meets its match

RATING 81/100

Right, we have deferred talking about the unmentionable for long enough. So let's do it now. It's winter. Have you given any thought to how you are going to manage this time round? Not great last time was it? As soon as there was a bit of frost and snow -- what people in many other countries would describe as a dusting -- we slalomed around like ducks in thunder.

The first thing to do is make sure you have decent tyres. There are several big promotions at the moment encouraging people to put on winter tyres. That is not as dramatic or costly as it sounds. You get much better grip on any car, be it two-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive. And you can switch back to your normal tyres next April or May.

So having two sets may cost initially but you'd have them for twice as long -- if you see what I mean.

It's cheaper than panicking yourself into buying an expensive 4x4 you don't really need for six to eight months of the year. And, anyway, some of the examples I've seen of people making spinning tops out of 4x4s last winter would make you realise that many don't really know how to drive in wintry conditions.

The best advice? Take it easy, don't spin the wheels by ramming the accelerator to the floor, and leave huge space between you and the vehicle in front.

The test car this week is quite appropriate and like a good set of tyres could save you having to buy a 'pure' 4x4. I deferred driving the Suzuki SX4 until now so I could more timely advise of its merits (and de-merits of course).

I wouldn't be that mad about the revised SX4 as a car per se, but it has a distinctly clever piece of engineering that ensures it has to be considered for anyone looking for a small-ish hatch with real 'winter' grip.

The SX4 tips along with two-wheel drive under normal conditions. If the conditions are a little slippery you nudge a switch a little (it's just down near the handbrake) and it reduces slippage by providing four-wheel drive on and off as the need arises.

For example, if the front wheels are slipping a tad, it automatically distributes pulling power to the rear wheels for more traction. When there is no slippage detected, it goes back to front-wheel drive.

If conditions are bad, you press the button back a little more and hold it for a few seconds. Hey presto, you have permanent four-wheel drive -- and a little yellow icon appears on the dash to tell you. This 'locks you into' 4WD and is permanent up to 60kmh.

They've given this motor a bit of a makeover recently. It is a roomy enough, sturdy looking, tall-ish, crossover five-door hatchback, with a lot more supermini in its DNA than 4x4. And it is not bad at all for €20,000 or so.

Given its abilities, it's hardly surprising that Suzuki calls it a 'car for all seasons'. More luck to it, Suzuki has had this niche market to itself and will no doubt be hoping to make a case with potential buyers this winter.

I had no need of the 4WD but I put it on a few times anyway. I couldn't really detect its input over roads that were wet and slippery, but I felt a bit more secure on hilly, shady surfaces.

Don't go thinking it will take you off-road in the traditional sense.

For a start it doesn't have a lot of body clearance so you risk scraping the undercarriage on rocks etc.

There's a 2-litre diesel under the bonnet which was decent without sparkling. With a six-speed gearbox, it is frugal enough to keep your road tax to €156 a year.

In the cabin I did feel they could have insulated the engine and tyre(!) noise a good deal more. Some of the plastic material was reminiscent of the light-grey/cheap-'n'-cheerful variety and not particularly appealing. I found the seats quite comfortable with plenty of body and strength in them.

There was good rear-seat room, a moderately sized boot and, as it's a tall sort of motor, plenty of headroom all round. For the money, the equipment stacks up an impressive series of credits.

There's automatic air con (as important in winter as summer for maintaining an ambient temperature), cruise control and MP3/WMA compatible CD tuner with eight speakers, so you are pretty well off.

I wouldn't say it is the most eye-catching car I've had this year. Indeed, in silver, it is quite ordinary looking. I saw an 08-reg version in red and it looked a million times better.

It was not the best to drive in the world either. It certainly lacked the suppleness and accomplishment of some conventional two-wheel drive hatch competitors over poor roads. That is something to be considered in your final analysis.

And the steering was far too heavy at parking speeds. I'm not exactly a weakling yet I did notice the extra weight involved and effort required.

But there is no doubt the simplicity of application of that three-way switch makes this a stand-out option for the winters we are told to expect.

On that basis there is a future for this sort of motor. Who ever thought we'd be thinking of a 4x4 supermini as an answer to Irish winters?

At the same time we should never lose sight of the fact that the tyres we use and how we drive -- regardless of what technology is, or is not, at our disposal -- can play a huge part in getting us home safely.

So go and check your tyres now, please. And we can all brush up on our driving.

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