The Suzuki Kizashi, a smallish mid-size sedan from an automaker most Americans are barely aware of, is the very definition of an underdog. We nearly laughed out loud a year and a half ago when Suzuki reps spoke of the Kizashi as an Automobile of the Year contender. It turns out Suzuki had the last laugh. The Kizashi, although it did not earn an award at our annual All-Stars test, was easily the biggest surprise of the group for its impressive refinement and stunningly good driving dynamics. "The Kizashi was by far the best-handling front-wheel-drive car in the test, excepting the [2010 Automobile of the Year] Volkswagen GTI," proclaimed West Coast editor Jason Cammisa. We were intrigued enough that we decided to spend an entire year with a Kizashi to see if it really has what it takes to compete day in and day out with the big dogs in its segment.
Whereas our All-Stars test model was something of a ringer, equipped in the sportiest trim with a six-speed manual, we wanted our Four Seasons example to reflect more closely the tastes of the average mid-size-car buyer. Thus, we opted for a continuously variable automatic transmission and the top-of-the-line SLS trim, which includes leather seats (heated in front), a power sunroof, Bluetooth, keyless ignition, and a Rockford Fosgate 425-watt stereo with an all-important iPod connector. We were impressed that Suzuki was coming out of the gate with all-wheel drive, still a relatively rare option in the segment (Subaru is the only other automaker to offer it with a four-cylinder engine), so we checked that box, too. Our Kizashi's optional floor mats, light blue metallic paint, and body-sill extensions cost another $380, for a total of $27,864 -- some $8000 more than a base model with the same four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission.
Any concern that the Kizashi wouldn't be able to live up to its maxed-out window sticker was put to rest as soon as we got acquainted with our test car's plush tan leather interior. "I'd venture to call this the highest quality cabin in any mainstream sedan -- tasteful, functional, and attractive," enthused associate editor Eric Tingwall. Indeed, the nicely grained materials, excellent panel fit, and high-dollar switchgear all call to mind the best work of Suzuki's new owners at Volkswagen, even though the Kizashi was a wholly independent project. That impression didn't fade even as the car's shiny newness wore off and it became overshadowed by more exotic offerings in our garage. "After some time away from the Kizashi, I climb into our blue sedan and marvel that this is, in fact, a Suzuki," said Tingwall. Excepting a small but persistent sunroof rattle that was present from day one, the cabin's quality was as good as its appearance, and it suffered no damage that a good cleaning wouldn't fix. In fact, the whole car proved exceptionally durable, requiring only routine (and cheap) maintenance throughout twelve months and 32,667 miles, although the dealer did address two minor recalls (see Running Costs sidebar).
The Suzuki's interior lags behind those of some of its competitors when it comes to technology, however. The Bluetooth interface garnered complaints for its "convoluted" multistep pairing process, which also required a separate process to play songs through Bluetooth audio. Pairing via the USB input worked much better for iPods, but iPhones suffered serious compatibility issues with this approach. We had to return to the dealer to add satellite radio, something we think should come from the factory on a car edging toward $30,000. (Apparently Suzuki agrees, as it now offers XM radio on SLS models like ours.) Having said all that, most who spent time in the Kizashi didn't feel as if they were missing anything. "The Kizashi is all most people really 'need' in a new car. If you're a fan of small sedans with quality appointments, the Kizashi fits the bill perfectly," said senior web editor Phil Floraday. The car did not, however, fit everyone perfectly. Even though the sedan is enormous by Suzuki standards, it's quite small by the standards of the modern mid-size segment, measuring more than half a foot shorter than a Hyundai Sonata. Not surprisingly, those in the higher growth percentiles griped about head- and legroom, particularly in the back seat. There were likewise complaints that the package-shelf-mounted subwoofer took away some trunk space. A few editors also cited the smallish footprint for making the car susceptible to crosswinds at speeds above 80 mph.
None of these issues stopped us from driving the Kizashi as far west as Salt Lake City, Utah, and as far south as Asheville, North Carolina, with several trips to Chicago and New York as well. The Kizashi's mellow demeanor on those trips invited rare enthusiasm -- ebullience, even -- for our least favorite type of transmission: "Praise for the CVT! Even at 90 mph, the four-cylinder spins below 3000 rpm," reported a clearly excited Tingwall. That low-rpm cruising was a boon to fuel economy, with several highway tanks yielding 30 mpg or better. Overall, we averaged 25 mpg, matching exactly the EPA combined estimate. That's impressive but no better than the estimates for larger sedans like the Hyundai Sonata and the Ford Fusion.
It's tempting to think that we could have achieved better fuel economy without the optional all-wheel drive, but Suzuki says the difference is marginal. We have to agree, mostly because we barely used the system. Unlike most cars equipped with all-wheel drive, the Kizashi's setup comes on only when you press a button on the dash, which we rarely did. "It's not like this engine is so powerful that torque steer rears its head often," noted deputy editor Joe DeMatio. On the few occasions it was called upon, the system did its job, in one instance helping a driver claw up a snowy mountain in Wyoming. We applaud Suzuki for offering the feature on such an affordable car. Most buyers, though, would do well to skip it, avoiding the extra weight and saving some extra cash.
Happily, none of this -- not the all-wheel drive, not the automatic transmission, not even the usual obsessing over Bluetooth and iPods -- seriously detracted from what attracted us to the Suzuki Kizashi in the first place: its driving dynamics. "The Kizashi's steering is very direct, and it's relatively taut through switchbacks -- Suzuki has done its homework when it comes to chassis tuning," said associate web editor Evan McCausland, one of several to praise the Kizashi's positively Germanic suspension. The four-cylinder, although hardly bursting with power, was always eager to perform and sounded good doing it. "It's amazing how much more pleasant a CVT is when there's a good engine attached to it," said Floraday. Let there be no misunderstanding: editors expressed a unanimous preference for the stick-shift, front-wheel-drive model, both for its dynamic superiority and its price. "If you skip the all-wheel drive and CVT, it's possible to get a very well-equipped car for $23,500," noted Floraday. But given market realities, namely the nearly nonexistent demand for manual transmissions in family sedans, we are happy that even the less sporting Kizashi can provide a smile on a back road.
Unfortunately, market realities haven't been kind to the Kizashi in general. For all its strong qualities, it found only 6138 buyers in 2010, with improved but still marginal sales so far in 2011 (for depressing context, consider that the Dodge Avenger currently outsells the Kizashi by a margin of nearly eight to one). "Suzuki has built such a good car, and yet it's absolutely invisible in the marketplace -- what a shame," lamented managing editor Amy Skogstrom. Suzuki readily admits that its small advertising budget and porous dealer network have done its flagship sedan no favors. And yet, we also suspect that its tidy dimensions and lack of a more powerful optional engine also limit the car's appeal in a market that still equates bigger with better. In the real world, underdogs often lose.
But that won't keep us from cheering it on or singing its praises. The Kizashi ably and efficiently meets the needs of most buyers in this segment and, provided it's equipped wisely, does so for a reasonable price. The fact that Suzuki managed to achieve all this while throwing an all-too-rare bone to another underdog -- the budget- and practicality-minded enthusiast -- is a welcome bonus.
With the Kizashi, Suzuki has discovered the old adage that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. The company's last effort in the mid-size segment, the 2004-2006 Verona, was a quick and dirty rebadge courtesy of Daewoo, another General Motors satellite. Lacking any real attribute aside from its low price, it failed miserably. This time around, Suzuki might have again sourced some GM components, but fate intervened as the reeling American giant sold off its shares and more or less severed ties with its longtime Japanese associate. Suzuki forged ahead with a completely homebuilt effort, and the Kizashi emerged in late 2009 on a new platform based loosely on the smaller SX4.
Despite critical acclaim, sales of the Kizashi have been slow so far. Suzuki hopes to broaden its appeal by offering a more powerful engine. That engine was supposed to be a GM-sourced 3.6-liter V-6 -- Suzuki even offered up so-equipped test mules for journalist evaluation (our take: too much torque steer). That plan has since fallen through, and Suzuki again plans to produce its own solution. It showed a turbocharged four-cylinder prototype at the 2011 New York auto show (not to be confused with an aftermarket turbo Kizashi seen at the 2009 SEMA show) and also says it is working on a hybrid variant. Meanwhile, Suzuki has found a new deep-pocketed patron in the Volkswagen Group, ironic since the Kizashi reminds us of the old VW Jetta. It remains to be seen how the Japanese company and the Kizashi will figure into the vast German empire.
2010 Suzuki Kizashi SLS AWD
Body style 4-door sedan
Accommodation 5 passengers
Construction Steel unibody
Engine 16-valve DOHC I-4
Displacement 2.4 liters (146 cu in)
Horsepower 180 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque 170 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission Continuously variable
Drive Front- and 4-wheel
Steering Electrically assisted
Lock-to-lock 2.6 turns
Turning circle 36.0 ft
Suspension, front Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear Multilink, coil springs
Brakes f/r Vented discs/discs, ABS
Tires Dunlop SP Sport 7000
Tire size 235/45VR-18
Headroom f/r 39.3/37.0 in
Legroom f/r 41.7/35.6 in
Shoulder room f/r 55.5/54.6 in
L x W x H 183.1 x 71.7 x 58.3 in
Wheelbase 106.3 in
Track f/r 61.6/61.6 in
Weight 3598 lb
Weight dist. f/r 59.0/41.0%
Cargo capacity 13.3 cu ft
Fuel capacity 16.6 gallons
Est. fuel range 415 miles
Fuel grade 87 octane
Our Test Results
0-60 mph 9.7 sec
0-100 mph 28.1 sec
1/4-mile 17.6 sec @ 83 mph
30-70 mph passing 9.7 sec
Peak acceleration 0.35 g
Top speed 120 mph
Cornering l/r 0.89/0.87 g
70-0 mph braking 176 ft
Peak braking 1.07 g
3410 mi: $36.65
13,773 mi: $43.95
20,075 mi: $40.28
22,572 mi: $45.31
27,684 mi: $142.25
27,684 mi: Reflash transmission control module; replace center-console release lever
24,422 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Yokohama Ice Guard iG20 winter tires, $1010.54
EPA city/hwy/combined 22/29/25 mpg
Observed 25 mpg
Cost per mile
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.16 ($0.41 including depreciation)
Prices & Equipment
Price as tested
ABS; traction and stability control; all-wheel drive; dual-zone automatic climate control; cruise control; foglights; power sunroof, door locks, and windows; power heated front seats and sideview mirrors; leather upholstery; tilting/telescoping steering wheel; rain-sensing windshield wipers; rear parking sensors; 425-watt Rockford Fosgate ten-speaker audio system with USB port and Bluetooth connectivity; front, side, and side curtain air bags
Premium floor mats, $125; metallic paint, $130; body side-molding accents, $125
*Estimate based on information from intellichoice.com