We've been anxious to share with you our driving impressions of the new Suzuki Kizashi ever since its maker dropped off a car at our Ann Arbor offices nearly two months ago and again earlier this month for our annual All-Stars testing. Now that the driving-impressions embargo has finally lifted and we've driven the car in several states around the country, we're happy to reveal that the Kizashi is Suzuki's best-ever car for the American market and truly fun to drive, particularly on racetracks.
Suzuki's next-newest car, the compact SX4, drives impressively well, with tight steering and body motions. The mid-size Kizashi (which has similar dimensions to the Volkswagen Passat and whose name roughly translates to "something great is coming") may not look it from its somewhat anodyne exterior styling, but the car more or less matches the 500-pound-lighter SX4's fun factor in many ways -- and handily beats the dynamics of almost everything else in its price and/or size class.
Long gone are the days of Suzuki's lackluster Verona, Reno, and Forenza sedans and hatchbacks, which were more or less rebadged General Motors products. Suzuki claims that the new Kizashi, on the other hand, is a clean-slate, "home-built" effort with a "Europeanized flair" that follows that of the highly lauded Swift, a compact hatch that was launched in Europe several years ago but wasn't allowed to make the trip across the Atlantic.
To illustrate the capabilities of the Kizashi, Suzuki hosted us at VIRginia International Raceway in Alton, Virginia, yesterday. Just days before, I'd had the chance to drive a Kizashi at GingerMan Raceway near South Haven, Michigan. At GingerMan, I also rode along with Automobile Magazine's West Coast editor Jason Cammisa, who quickly fell in love with the Kizashi's neutral balance and willingness to rotate during lift-throttle maneuvers. "You'd never be able to do this in a Toyota Camry," Cammisa exclaimed as he drifted through a long hairpin left-hander. VIR is a hillier, more wide-open track, but the Kizashi handled its challenges with equally enjoyable aplomb, despite damp track surfaces. Per VIR officials' decree, we left stability control engaged, but we were happy to note that it doesn't rein you in nearly as early or abruptly as the stability control systems in many other cars on the market today. Our only complaint on the track is that the 185-hp four-cylinder engine is often reluctant to catapult the 3250-pound Kizashi out of corners. But like so many well-balanced, relatively underpowered cars (for example the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the normally aspirated Mini Cooper), the Kizashi is rewarding when you drive it correctly on a racetrack -- and relatively forgiving when you miss an apex. Such cars are more about momentum than horsepower, easy smiles rather than clenched teeth.
OK, so the Kizashi is surprisingly fun to toss around a racetrack. But how is it on real roads, at the hands of drivers who don't want to blatantly abuse the sidewalls of their Dunlop tires, particularly when those shoes are wrapped around the largest wheels available on the Kizashi -- eighteen inchers? Answer: the newest Suzuki handled imperfections on the scenic byways of North Carolina and Virginia very crisply, without transferring much turbulence to the occupants inside, and drove like the pleasant appliance that many midsize-car buyers desire. During more spirited driving, though, the Kizashi transforms, as those same underpinnings permit the car to take a confident set in corners and transition well between them.
The Kizashi's six-speed manual transmission, which we highly recommend, shifts lightly and smoothly and is enjoyable to operate. The other transmission option is a paddleshifted continuously variable automatic, which is generally very sure of itself and is quick to respond to throttle inputs. All-wheel drive is a nice extra to have in this class, but, unfortunately, it's available only with the CVT; AWD costs an additional $1250, adds about 125 pounds to the car's overall weight, and can send up to about 50 percent of the engine's power to the rear wheels.
American Suzuki executives -- who like to think of the Kizashi as "a premium car without the premium" and "a sport sedan alternative" -- are pleased with how the car has turned out, and justifiably so. Their biggest challenge, however, will be getting the word out, as Suzuki cars aren't on many consumers' radar screens, despite some impressive recent grades from the likes of J.D. Power, Consumer Reports, and the Automotive Leasing Guide (which tracks automotive resale values).
Our only real complaints are that the styling is a bit derivative (see the strong hints of Volkswagens in the front end and the BMW 1-series in the trunk lid?), the front seats don't raise high enough to provide exemplary thigh support, and the gloveboxes in several vehicles didn't seem to fit quite right. Although we found the four-banger a bit lacking in oomph on the racetrack, some less-lead-footed journalists were surprised to learn that the cars they'd driven were equipped with only a four-cylinder, so most owners probably won't mind -- especially since the Kizashi will offer fuel economy of up to 23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway, according to EPA tests of front-wheel-drive, CVT-equipped base models.
Four trim levels will be available: S, SE, GTS, and top-spec SLS. Convenience features like dual-zone climate control and keyless go/entry are standard across the board, while top-level models can have their already-sharp interiors adorned with things like leather, navigation, and a powerful Rockford Fosgate audio system that can stream tunes from your iPod via a Bluetooth connection. Safety and warranty are top-notch as well. The S model will start at less than $20,000; a front-wheel-drive manual vehicle loaded with everything but nav will sticker at about $25,000.
The Kizashi will start trickling into dealerships in December with a version of the 2.4-liter four-cylinder that premiered in the Grand Vitara for the 2009 model year. The engine is rated at 185 hp with the stick shift and 180 hp with the CVT. Suzuki promises that a hybrid powertrain, which the company is codeveloping with GM, will become available "in the next year or two." Suzuki is also considering a V-6-powered Kizashi, and they went so far as to have a prototype Kizashi with the deceased XL7's V-6 available for us to drive at VIR. We think that the better solution to the Kizashi's perceived lack of power would be installing a turbocharged four-cylinder (think upsized VW GTI). It seems that a more lightweight turbo powertrain would nicely complement the Kizashi's well-balanced, tossable, and fun-to-drive character, while probably also offering better fuel economy than a six-cylinder engine. Are you listening, Suzuki?