(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com)
Quick, name the last Suzuki you saw this week. Or this month. And it can't be a motorcycle or ATV.
What, you didn't know Suzuki made cars?
After two years of selling more than 100,000 cars in the US during 2006 and 2007 — mostly rebadged Korean-built Daewoos — Suzuki dropped to 85,000 in 2008. It'll be lucky if it finishes 2009 with half of that.
Suzuki's vigorous housekeeping during the past three years is a big part of its invisibility in the market. In 2007, it eliminated the Verona midsize sedan after just three model years. The compact Aerio four- and five-doors were next to go in 2008, replaced by the modern SX4. This year, Suzuki threw out the Reno and Forenza and didn't replace them at all (but added the Nissan-based Equator pickup). Even the General Motors-based XL7 SUV won't have an encore in 2010.
What we're left with is a compact SUV, a pickup truck, and a four- and five-door compact, all of which have raised Suzuki's profile from destitute to somewhat acceptable. But Suzuki's not done cleaning, nor is it happy with being the second-largest automaker in Japan and at the bottom of the barrel in America.
Their comeback model, after three concept cars bearing the same name, is the not-quite-compact, sort-of-midsize 2010 Kizashi. It's completely new, tuned at the Nürburgring, and Suzuki will pay you $100 if you test-drive it and then buy an Audi A4 or Acura TSX instead. For an automaker barely on most buyer's radars — let alone buyers willing to pony up $30,000-plus for a luxury car — sending $100 thank-yous is an ambitious stunt, but not altogether insane.
When the midsize Kizashi 3 concept car debuted at the 2008 New York Auto Show, it looked like Suzuki was pulling a move from Volkswagen, which in the past few years has convinced people to forget its pedestrian past and pay more for flashier style and features. But many of the concept's attractive details — wide-mouth grill, decorative exhaust trim, high shoulder line, and large wheels — all vie for space on a production car that's 2.4 inches wider and 5.4 inches longer than a Toyota Corolla, yet 6.1 inches shorter than a Camry. There's not enough metal for a truly lavish impression.
Until a hefty percentage of midsize sedan buyers are swayed by this Suzuki — which for the money packs more equipment than the Altima or Accord — there's little reason to compare the Kizashi to larger cars with more interior volume.
But when compared to cars it actually competes with, namely the Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, and new Kia Forte, there's no question the Kizashi is more handsome, refined, and fun than any of them.
The Kizashi, which at $18,999 starts a few grand dearer than the Corolla crowd, has standard keyless ignition, dual-zone climate with rear seat vents, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and rear side airbags (optional on even the most expensive BMWs and Mercedes).
Our $24,849 GTS model added intricate 18-inch alloys, a punchy 425-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system with USB, Bluetooth, moonroof, power driver's seat, and fog lamps. All-wheel drive is available on all trim levels. Our tester had it, along with the ability to switch to two-wheel drive on the fly for better fuel economy. That's unheard of in any class, save for serious SUVs and pickups.
A 2.4 liter, 180 horsepower four-cylinder is the sole engine choice, and it's a smooth unit until the continuously-variable transmission pegs the revs at 5,000 when accelerating hard. Hybrid drivers know this feeling, but it's not welcome in a car with sporting intentions. Try the six-speed manual instead.
The steering, handling, and braking are all up to sport sedan task, offering the right combination of agility, compliance, and a good level of communication with the road. You won't confuse the Kizashi with an Audi S4, yet there's a precision to this setup that does feel expensive. Try a $21,000 Kia Forte SX with sport suspension, for example, and you'll realize the Kizashi doesn't crash, bang, or jerk the steering wheel over bumps. It swallows and silences road imperfections as well as the $22,270 Volkswagen Jetta TDI we tested earlier this year — excellent for this price range.
Interior style, fit, and finish are well above compact norms. You'll
find soft-touch dashboard panels, padded door handles, and rich center
stack plastics. Gaps are tight, the arching aluminum-look trim displays
a pleasant symmetry, buttons are large and well-marked, and the
one-touch windows slow down right as they're about to seal, à la Lexus.
Heated front seats, leather, rain-sensing wipers, backup camera with
ultrasonic sensors, and navigation are available on the fully-loaded
We averaged 24 miles per gallon operating in two-wheel drive mode for most of our 368 miles on highways and city roads. The EPA rates the all-wheel drive Kizashi at 23/30 with the CVT. It's nothing to brag about.
As a premium compact, the Kizashi stands above Honda, Ford, Toyota, and Kia in every way (when Ford sends its European Focus next year, that may change). Whether it's better than the Mazda 3, which we named to our "Top Drives of 2009" list, or the Volkswagen Jetta is a toss-up. That the Kizashi can be considered among this noteworthy pair of sporty, $20,000 compacts gives Suzuki due attention, even if Audi and Acura owners never notice.
About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee