First Drive: 2010 Suzuki Kizashi

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?

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