First Drive: 2010 Suzuki Kizashi

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.

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