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When you're shopping in the $15,000 new-car market, chances are that head-turning style and high-performance aren't first on your priority list. No, more likely you're looking to get as much car as you possibly can for as few dollars as possible.
It is into this hotly contested, price- and feature-sensitive market that Suzuki enters with two new models this year. The Suzuki Forenza Wagon and Reno are new to Suzuki's Forenza family for the 2005 model year. Both are based on the Forenza sedan, which was introduced as an all-new model for 2004. The underpinnings of the three body styles are mechanically identical. The major difference among them is exterior styling and a few trim choices.
From the standpoint of stuff for the money, the Forenza family of cars does well. They are well equipped even at the base trim level, and retail for less than most of their competitors.
The Reno is the fun member of the family. Its job is to be Suzuki's pretty face, attracting buyers who might otherwise consider cars sitting on Scion showroom floors, or perhaps the sleek lines of the Mazda 3, to which it bears a slight resemblance. The Forenza Wagon's most compelling feature is just that: it's a wagon. Larger than the Chevy Aveo and Kia Rio, it costs significantly less than comparably sized wagons such as the Ford Focus ZXW or the Toyota Matrix. The Forenza sedan is designed to offer a strong value in a sea of value-priced compact sedans, no easy job. It does this by providing side-impact airbags as standard equipment; they're extra-cost options on the 2005 Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus. Other features that are optional on the big brand names are standard on the Forenza, including air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and a CD player.
Suzuki is able to keep prices low because, despite the Japanese nameplate, the cars are built in Korea by Daewoo, courtesy of General Motors, which owns a stake in both Daewoo and Suzuki. General Motors benefits by keeping its Daewoo plant active, and Suzuki gets a full line of cars to draw more people into its dealerships.
The cars resulting from this complex genealogy are not ground breaking; few cars in this segment ever are. Breaking ground costs money, after all, so breaking ground is a job usually done by more expensive vehicles. However, these cars are strong on features, have warranties, and are good values for the money, even if they are short on pizzazz.
Reno S ($13,499), Forenza S ($13,499) and Forenza wagon S ($13,949) come standard with air conditioning, cloth upholstery, AM/FM/CD/cassette with six speakers, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, power windows, power door locks, heated power mirrors, 60/40 split folding rear seats, intermittent wipers and other features. Also standard are details such as a trunk light, seatback pockets, and remote releases for the trunk and fuel filler door. The Reno's stereo also supports MP3 playback.
Forenza and Reno LX ($15,349) and the Forenza wagon LX ($15,849) add remote keyless entry, cruise control, fog lamps, a power sunroof, 15-inch alloy wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.
Forenza and Reno EX ($16,949) and the wagon ($17,449) come with leather upholstery and the automatic.
Safety features include side-impact airbags as standard equipment along with the mandated dual front airbags. We recommend getting the optional anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution ($500), which are available for LX and EX models. Three-point seatbelts are provided for all positions and we strongly recommend wearing them because they are your first line of defense in any crash; the front seatbelts are equipped with pretensioners designed to reduce belt-related injuries in a crash and adjustable shoulder-height adjusters for better comfort. The LATCH system of lower anchors and top tethers for child seats comes standard along with rear-door child safety locks. Safety sells, and these Suzukis are long on it for this class.
The driving experience in the Suzuki Forenza and Reno is about what you'd expect in a value-oriented compact. The Reno and Forenza share the same platform, including suspension, engine and transmission. So we weren't surprised when all three body styles shared similar driving characteristics.
Power comes from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. It's not particularly powerful nor is it particularly fuel efficient. With 16 valves, double overhead cams, direct ignition and most of the other modern engine tricks we see today, its 126 horsepower at 5600 rpm are somewhat disappointing. Torque is a bit better, at 131 lb-ft at 4000 rpm, but no matter how you slice it, this is not a very sporty engine, a fact reinforced by the unhappy noises it makes when pushed hard.
EPA-estimated fuel economy is just 22/30 mpg City/Highway (manual transmission, all models). That's distinctly sub-par for the class. On the plus side, they meet ULEV Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle requirements, meaning they're relatively clean.
Part of the problem is weight. These Suzuki models are fairly heavy cars for this class. Base curb weight for the Forenza sedan is 2701 pounds, which is 200 pounds heavier than a Toyota Corolla and 250 pounds heavier than a Honda Civic. The Reno hatchback weighs in at 2750 pounds while the wagon tips the scales at 2850 pounds. Weight impacts acceleration performance, and these cars are not quick.
We tested both the five-speed manual and the four-speed automatic transmissions. The automatic shifts smoothly, but feels as though it's taking what little power the engine puts out and hiding it away somewhere. The automatic features a fiddly gated shifter on the floor and you have to have to push down on the shifter handle to move it from neutral to reverse, all of which seems to add layer of needless complexity. On the plus side, it offers a Hold function designed to keep the car in gear on long uphill stretches. The standard five-speed manual felt smooth and buttery in a Reno we drove, but vague and ropey in a Forenza sedan.
As befitting a budget car, the suspension is pretty basic, although it is fully independent. MacPherson struts hold up the front of the car, while a dual-link setup takes care of the rear. It's a tried and true setup that does its job well, and is well-sorted in this car, with few extraneous ride motions, and an overall comfortable ride. Despite its looks, the Reno is no sportster, but it and the Forenza have well damped suspensions that keep control of the car body in most circumstances. It feels tuned to the soft side, which was nice on bumpy, broken pavement, but it dove under braking and squatted under acceleration. The steering had a bit of play in it. The steering is decently weighted, but we frequently found ourselves having to re-center the wheel ourselves, rather than letting the car do it.
Brakes are firm underfoot. Anti-lock brakes are optional. We recommend getting ABS as it allows the driver to brake and steer at the same time in an evasive maneuver. Electronic brake-force distribution helps balance braking force front to rear according to the situation, resulting in quicker stops and better stability under hard braking. In short, these features can help you avoid a crash, whether it's wet, wintry or dry pavement on a sunny day.
The Suzuki Forenza and Reno models offer a lot of stuff for the money when compared with the big name brands, and come with an excellent warranty (3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 100,000 miles/7-year powertrain). The Reno five-door hatchback, the Forenza four-door sedan and the Forenza wagon are essentially the same vehicle in different body styles. Reno is the best looking with its Italian styling.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Keith Buglewicz is based in Southern California.