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.
The biggest distinction between the Suzuki Forenza and Reno models is the exterior styling.
The Forenza sedan and wagon boast clean lines when viewed from the side, and the jeweled taillights are a nice touch from the rear. The front, however, features a three-element grille, with a center section surrounded by body-colored plastic. Dead center is a Texas belt-buckle sized Suzuki "S." It's not the most flattering angle of the car, and it reminds us of Mitsubishi's similarly peculiar nose treatment. In addition, the 15-inch wheels look a little lost in the bodywork, especially in the back. Bigger wheels would help, but they would also push that low base price up, which would be an unforgivable sin.
The Reno boasts a much smoother design, and if the word "Italian" crosses your mind when looking at it, give yourself a pat on the back. Penned by Italy's ItalDesign studios, the Reno's smooth shape is its best asset. Sleek headlights sweep into the body work, the fenders are nicely arched, and a strong character line runs along the top of the fender, over the doors, and to the tail. The arched wheel wells give the same 15-inch wheels a little added dimension, so they don't look as tiny here. It's one of the nicer five-door hatchbacks on the road, better than Suzuki's own Aerio and several others.
Fit and finish on these cars is good, but not class leading. Still, we couldn't find any assembly problems or anything that pointed to a slapdash effort on the part of the Korean builders. Word is that Suzuki's engineers taught Daewoo a little something about fit and finish, and the lessons seem to have taken hold. The paint was nicely sprayed, with our Forenza wagon a very pretty medium blue color. Silver is a tough color to get right, but the Reno's paint job was without blotches or other cheap-looking touches. The only quirk, and we've noticed this in all the Korean-built Suzuki models, were doors that required a strong effort to slam. We're not talking blast-door weight here, but we frequently found ourselves staring at the "door ajar" light.
The interiors of the Reno and Forenza LX models we've seen were virtually identical, with the only exceptions being the shape as dictated by the bodywork. The dash is trimmed in black and metallic-look plastic, and it's a harmonious and integrated design that eschews gimmickry for common sense. If you've driven any Japanese car in the past 20 years, you'll be immediately familiar with the control layout. Hard plastic is kept to a relative minimum, and the dash top, door pulls and virtually anything else you'll touch on a day-to-day basis feel as good as comparable Korean or, as the case may be, Japanese competitors.
Gauges are big and clear, with a central speedometer flanked to the left by the tachometer and the right by the fuel and temperature gauges. The stereo in both cars sounded only mediocre, but both had clear controls and were easy to figure out.
The front seats were comfortable, with adjustments for fore, aft, and height. Engine noise gets intrusive the higher you rev it, but wind and road noise is well controlled for this price point. As long as you don't expect Lexus-levels of silence, you'll be happy.
Rear-seat room is among the best in the class. On paper, the Forenza sedan offers more rear hip room, head room and leg room than the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda 3 and Nissan Sentra. And Reno offers more rear legroom than the Mazda 3 and Toyota Matrix. Still, this is a compact, so the back seats are tight. Although five belts are available, we recommend squeezing three people in the back only if they still want cookies and milk before naptime. Back seat roominess is mostly identical for sedan, wagon and hatchback, though the wagon offers more rear headroom than the Reno does.
Trunk space in the Forenza sedan is about average for the class, 12.4 cubic feet.
With five doors, both the Reno hatchback and Forenza Wagon lean heavily on utility to get them through the day. All Forenza and Reno models share the same 102.4-inch wheelbase, the norm for the class. But the Forenza Wagon is 10 inches longer overall, so it's able to carry more stuff. With the seats up, the Forenza Wagon can swallow more than 24 cubic feet of cargo, while the Reno manages just under 9 cubic feet, less than the sedan. Fold down the seats, however, and the Reno really opens up with 45.4 cubic feet of cargo space compared with 61 cubic feet in the wagon. Neither car's rear seats fold completely flat, but they're good enough for temporary storage. Also, the cargo covers on both cars deserve special mention for the total lack of reflection they cast on the rear window when in use.
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.
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