It is reportedly the most affordable all-wheel-drive vehicle in the U.S., with a starting price just under $15K. Positioned as a compact crossover (CUV), it's a tad taller and beefier than subcompacts such as the Honda Fit and Ford Focus.

The SX4 is built on a steel 4X4 unibody for stability but fine-tuned in Europe for nimbleness and crisp, responsive handling. The rigid body sits on reinforced suspension mounts, front MacPherson struts, a torsion beam rear suspension, and 16in. wheels that make the ride surprisingly comfortable and surefooted.

On one loose-graveled switchback, I put the SX4's intelligent all-wheel-drive (i-AWD) system through its paces. It gets high marks in my book. The system has three modes and is controlled via a console-mounted switch. Two-wheel drive gives maximum fuel economy on dry pavement. All-wheel-drive Auto adjusts power distribution to the rear wheels from 0 to 50%, depending on traction. And AWD Lock gives added traction in snow and mud by distributing up to 50% of power to the rear wheels. To prevent damage, the system switches to AWD at 36 mph.

A 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission delivers 143 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque. The power-plant gets an EPA fuel economy rating of 23/28-mpg city/highway, while its optional four-speed automatic counterpart gets 24/30 mpg.

The SX4's low, rising waistline and large triangular windows forward of the front doors give the vehicle a sporty look, but I felt like I was looking through giant ill-fitting glasses with the frames splitting my field of view. It was bad enough that I developed a slight case of vertigo nearly every time I took the wheel, but I easily develop motion sickness.

Inside, the SX4 seats five. Its cabin volume (90 ft3) compares well with that of the Subaru Impreza wagon and the Audi A3. There's 41.4 in. of legroom in front and 35.9 in. for rear passengers. There's also 52.8 in. of hip room and 47 in. of shoulder room for back-seat passengers. And the 60/40 split rear seats can be tumbled forward for 22 ft3 of cargo space.

The SX4 comes in two trims. The basic ($15K) SX4 can have an optional convenience package that adds cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls and bumps the price to $15, 299. Sport trim adds amenities including silver roof rails, fog lamps, automatic climate control, and a six-disc, in-dash CD changer and nine speakers (including subwoofer) and bumps the price to $16,399.