Suzuki Kizashi — A step in the right direction

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Suzuki’s new mid-sized sedan gets most things right, making it a worthwhile investment in practical and comfortable transportation. We might even suggest it is smart investment with touches of unexpected refinement.

But the newest Suzuki will not get equal treatment in the marketplace.

There are reasons for this perceived prejudice. First, Suzuki is off the radar screen of most buyers in the U.S. And for those few who own Suzuki vehicles or who have shopped them in recent times, Suzuki is synonymous with small, rugged four-wheel drive jungle busters, motorcycles, or compact, fuel-efficient, inexpensive cars and crossovers.

Suzuki’s total U.S. sales in 2008 were a paltry 85,000. That’s only one-fifth of Toyota Camry’s 2008 sales.

Then there’s the name of the new flagship sedan — the Kizashi. If you can’t pronounce the name, and don’t know exactly what it is to begin with, you probably won’t go near a showroom to look at one or take a test drive.

Too bad; you’ll be missing a good car.

Hint – head off to the Suzuki store and when you get there ask to see the KEE-zah-shee. You should know that loosely translated from Japanese Kizashi means, “something great is coming.”

While we wouldn’t classify the Kizashi as great, we do put it in the “job well done” category. Without a doubt the nicest and best sedan Suzuki has ever produced for the U.S. market

Perhaps most importantly, the Suzuki designers did a commendable job styling the new car, which features an aggressive wheels-pushed-to-the-corners stance, an intriguing face with large, canted headlights and a bold rectangular grille.

The signature look for us is from the rear. A spoiler lip is integrated into the trunk lid and the dual triangular pipes are large and menacing. Very neatly done!

The problem with the Kizashi isn’t the Kizashi. It blends the aforementioned good looks with a nice ride, competent handling, decent performance, and acceptable gas mileage. It features a relatively quiet, well-executed interior that is comprised of decent materials and above average fit and finish. It even features some compelling surprises for a car in its’ price class.

The problem for the Kizashi is that it joins an extremely competitive segment with well established vehicles enhanced by long known names with huge marketing budgets. That’s lots to overcome.

While overcoming the obstacles that well-entrenched competitors present is a tall order
at least they join the fray with a credible entry, and one that Suzuki says is the most important car it has launched in the U.S. Note that the Kizashi is a completely home-grown design. It carries no parts from occasional contributors Daewoo and General Motors.

We found the Kizashi’s smallish size to our liking, but people looking for something in the larger end of the mid-sized segment such as a Camry or Accord, will be disappointed. Suzuki made its sedan slightly smaller because eventually it will be marketed as a world car.

The Kizashi is actually closer in dimensions to the Acura TSX, the Volvo S60 and the previous-generation Subaru Legacy.
But don’t be put off by its 183-inch length and 106-inch wheelbase — both of which fall several inches short of the aforementioned Toyota and Honda vehicles — until you drive it and ride a few miles in the back seat.

We found the driving position and the front-seat elbow room good, and it should prove comfortable for taller people. Rear-seat legroom is adequate, and better than the TSX and the S60. The rear seats are comfortable and should afford long-distance comfort. The rear seat back folds down in a 60-40 configuration for a useable combination of storage and passenger space.

The 13.3 cubic-foot trunk is capable of handling two golf bags, but on our day at the links it was simply easier to flip down the seatbacks and load the sticks straight into the trunk. After that particular round we felt more like loading them into the lake in front of the 18th hole.

Performance and handling are important, even in this segment, and after an hour on one of our winding back roads we were smiling. This Suzuki is indeed a driver's car with a well-tuned suspension and a lot of grip. This can’t be said for a number of competitors.

But if there is a weak link in the Kizashi it’s with the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, the only available powerplant. The engine provides good slow-speed performance, but it seems to run out of steam as rpm rush toward redline. And it offers a rather harsh note under full steam, not a refined drone as in Toyotas and Hondas.

If this was an entry-level product, all would be just fine. But the engine is a discordant note in a car that seeks elevation to the level of premium family transportation.

This is not to say the engine’s 185 horsepower with the 6-speed manual and 180 horsepower with the continuously variable transmission doesn't provide decent performance. It does, measured at about 8 seconds from 0 to 60. Suzuki says the manual front-drive model can accomplish the feat in 7.4 seconds.

Should Suzuki include a small V-6 in the lineup? If it was our decision there would be a V-6 option available for the higher trim levels. It would take care of people like us who wish for a few more horses and a quieter, more refined engine.

Of course a number of our concerns may become moot as this week Suzuki and global giant Volkswagen have announced that VW has acquired a 19.9-percent stake in Suzuki; an action that could be very fruitful for both companies as Suzuki needs development help in mid-size and larger vehicles and VW needs small car help in third world markets and volume growth to move past Toyota as the global automotive leader.

For now Kizashi has four trim levels — S, SE, GTS and SLS — and available all-wheel drive. The Suzuki starts at $19,734 and runs up to $27,484 for a top-line SLS with all-wheel drive.

The list of standard features is impressive and includes such amenities as keyless start, dual-zone air conditioning, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, a four-speaker audio system with CD and MP3 player, and a full range of power equipment.

Safety features are impressive as well with eight airbags including side airbags for the rear seats, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control.

Our GTS test car with manual transmission came in at $23,234. We think that’s an excellent price that undercuts many competitors.

That alone should help you find a Kizashi at your local Suzuki store.


Base price: $19,734; as driven, $23,234
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 185 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 170 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 183.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,241 pounds
Luggage capacity: 13.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 29 mpg highway, 20 mpg city
0-60: 8.3 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata

The Good:

• Excellent styling
• Well-appointed interior
• Surprisingly good handling

The Bad:

• Unrefined engine doesn't live up to premium billing

The Ugly:

• What's with the name and where can I find a dealership?