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Suzuki says that the Kizashi midsize sedan is the most important car in the history of the company. Starting off with a bang, it was nominated for North American Car of the Year by a panel of automotive journalists who drove it, before it reached the showrooms. The word kizashi means something great is coming.
The Suzuki Kizashi comes with a 2.4-liter aluminum four-cylinder with variable valve timing that does the job well, getting about 25 mpg in combined city and highway driving. It makes 185 or 180 horsepower, depending on whether it's mated to a six-speed manual transmission or Continuously Variable Transaxle (CVT). The CVT works like an automatic transmission but can also be controlled manually with six ranges shifted neatly by paddles on the steering wheel.
Suzuki engineers invested much time and attention in the development of the suspension, MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear, and it shows; the ride (including over rough roads) and handling (including hard driving on the track) are exceptional for a midsize sports sedan that costs a mere $20,000. The chassis raises the bar for rigidity. The brakes, too, we found to be pitch perfect.
All-wheel drive is available. It's a sophisticated system that turns on and off so you can use the normal front-wheel drive on dry pavement and not waste fuel. The all-wheel-drive package, available with the CVT, brings Suzuki to the game with the Subaru Legacy and Audi A3.
Suzuki didn't sully the Kizashi's fine engineering with overstated styling. It looks both potent and elegant, in its modest midsize manner. Lovely lines: a touch of Audi here, a pinch of Lexus there. No overachieving swoops or flares, no gratuitous chrome trying to grab your attention.
Inside the cabin, you have to pinch yourself to accept that you're in a car with such a modest price. The quality of the materials is high, maybe especially the standard sport seats, the layout of the controls and instruments is clean, and the standard equipment is plentiful, including climate control vents for the rear seat, and a USB port, among other details. Even the base model has remote entry, pushbutton start, power windows, and other equipment many base models lack, although cruise control is not included at that lowest price.
Safety-wise, the Kizashi leads the field, with no less than eight airbags and advanced stability control using the anti-lock brake system (ABS). Suzuki says the Kizashi has surpassed the government's 2014 standards for side pole impact and offset front collision.
Clearly Suzuki DNA, all the way, especially head-on. Kizashi's looks are consistent with its performance profile. Not a would-be or wannabe sports sedan, but a modest sports sedan on the way up. Nothing is overdone. Not even the twin chrome integrated angular tailpipes, which are sure to be popular and undoubtedly add distinction to the car.
Shape-wise, from the rear, it's quite tidy, but you can't really tell the Kizashi is special, until you see the chrome Kizashi nameplate, in racy Japanese-looking script.
The Kizashi has a rounded, Audi-like stance. In profile, especially roofline and front valance, it's Lexus-like. The hood is a small bulge, with no extra contours other than its natural overall shape. The shape of the grille is totally Suzuki, as if that big S in the center didn't say so. Headlights fit just right, and clean lines to the three other air openings, with the two outside slots holding the foglamps.
The 18-inch alloy wheels have no less than 22 spokes, and are stunning. It might be giving them a bit too much credit to say they make the car, but maybe they do.
If you're looking for flaws, or even looking for under-$20,000 trim pieces, you won't find them inside the car. If you're looking for discomforts or inconveniences, look elsewhere.
The instrumentation isn't as clean and sporty as it might be, but it's still sportier than many sports sedans and we like the ambient blue lighting. We enjoyed the fit of the sport seats, their high-density, low-fatigue foam covered by leather in our test model, an SLS. We drove all day, including over some choppy pavement and felt at one with the seat. It never entered our minds, being just a naturally good fit.
The leather is great, but the standard cloth is smooth and elegant in charcoal. Leather upholstery is an option you can skip, and still have a stylish car. Unlike some competitors, such as the Acura TSX, you can keep the Kizashi's price near base MSRP and still feel like you've got the good stuff.
The layout on the center stack, in brushed aluminum-look and black, is totally intuitive. You can easily understand and operate the knobs and controls, everything in its logical place, handsomely so. The leather-wrapped shift lever feels good, although if your Kizashi has the CVT, you'll be using the paddle shifters a lot. The paddles are sized and shaped just right, unlike some.
The three-spoke steering wheel with controls, no more and no less than you need, is nice. It feels good in your hands, driving sportily through the twists. Fold-down rear headrests improve rearview visibility.
Tight cupholders in front, and in the rear they slide forward out of the dropped center armrest. Nice leather door grab handles. A standard folding rear seat that opens up the trunk is always a treasure in a car; in addition, there's a hatch to the trunk for loading long items, such as skis or two-by-fours.
The legroom in the rear is adequate, although it's a couple inches less than the redesigned Subaru Legacy, a competitor with a base model at that same under-20k price (and including all-wheel drive). The Legacy is also a couple inches longer in wheelbase and length. But what the Kizashi lacks in legroom, it might make up in temperature comfort, with that rear seat climate vent.
There's a lot of sound insulation, so the cabin is quiet. The Kizashi is not as quiet as the Toyota Camry, but quieter than the VW Passat, Mazda6, or Acura TSX. The Kizashi also offers extensive corrosion protection, including resin panels under the body, zinc-plated steel sheets, and hot wax imbedded in the suspension mounting points.
Finally, the optional 425-watt Rockford sound system is beautiful.
We would say that now comes the best part, Driving Impressions, but the exterior and interior parts were so good already. Chassis and suspension is the best part of the driving impressions. And brakes. We drove a Kizashi with the CVT, and we ran it hard for about 80 challenging curvy miles, and we drove a Kizashi with the six-speed manual.
Suzuki says the performance-tuned CVT doesn't compromise the sports sedan quality, but it does. For one thing, the redline is 6000 rpm with the CVT, against 6500 with the six-speed manual, and that makes a difference. The CVT shifts via the paddles, through six ranges (like gears in a gearbox, but not), and you have to shift like mad to keep the engine in the powerband. Torque is 170 foot-pounds at 4000 rpm. When the engine hits 6000 rpm, it just stays there and buzzes away. It's not a rev limiter per se, it's just a limit. It feels weird. The response of the CVT is quite sharp, but it just changes the power delivery too much, if what you want is the throttle feel of an old-school sports sedan. It changes the whole dynamic, and sound, of the engine. It doesn't slow it down that much, just turns it into a washing machine. That said, if you don't care about driving hard over curving roads, you'll be happier with the CVT. Around town, you can forget it, or you can use the paddles if you want. In that way it's like an automatic transmission, only more efficient.
We tested out the six-speed manual transmission for about a dozen hot laps on Portland International Raceway, and it changed everything, especially with the engine. An actual rev limiter intrudes (mildly) at 6500 rpm, and you actually change a transmission gear, at that point. The clutch and linkage are neither short-throw nor aggressive; in fact the clutch feels a bit soft, but that's not a bad thing. It's a mild sports sedan.
The engine characteristics are steady, not thrilling, unlike a Japanese motorcycle engine or the five-year-old 2.0-liter Honda in the S2000, which knocked you out of your drawers with its high-revving surge. Actually, nobody, not even Honda, makes an engine like that any more. So who are we to lament that the Kizashi's 185 horsepower isn't thrilling? Against its competitors, it's solid; by comparison, the Acura TSX has 201 hp, the Mazda6 170 hp. But the Kizashi is quicker from 0 to 60 than either of them, and a lot cheaper than the TSX. It also comes with way more standard equipment.
Suzuki put a great deal of time and pride into the suspension, testing at the Nurburgring and in the Swiss Alps. The starting point was the chassis, with torsional rigidity higher than some European competitors. The Kizashi chief engineer, Hide Kumashiro, a former motorcycle road racer, stressed handling as his highest priority, using high-performance KYB rear shocks and a carefully designed multi-link rear suspension with imbedded aluminum. We pushed the Kizashi on the road, over undulating and sometimes rough surfaces, quick changes of direction under braking, and it never gave us an unsatisfying moment of wobble or softness. Nor did it ever jar us, not once, which might be saying even more. It wasn't the Alps, merely the Gifford Pinchot National Forest around Washington's Mount Adams, but we'll take it.
At Portland International Raceway, the Kizashi did not understeer. That's rare for any front-wheel-drive car, including many expensive sports sedans. Suzuki brought a test mule to the media launch we attended, a Kizashi fitted with a 3.6-liter engine tuned to make more than 250 horsepower. Naturally, we took some laps in that hotrod; driven with appropriate restraint, it didn't understeer either. The point was proven, that the Kizashi suspension is built to take a lot more horsepower. A more powerful Kizashi sometime in the future seems inevitable.
We weren't able to test the all-wheel-drive Kizashi AWD on any surface where it was needed, but it sounds real good. If you live in a winter climate, the Kizashi should work well for you.
Finally, the brakes. We found the touch to be beautiful, using them frequently on the curves on the road, and heavily around PIR. We can't imagine anyone in a sports sedan like this one needing more.
The Suzuki Kizashi is an all-new model, a midsize sedan that's inherently a sports sedan. And, out of nowhere it seems, Suzuki leaps to the front of that class. The Kizashi offers more standard equipment than its competitors, including safety features, at a lower price. The engineering is superb, with a solid four-cylinder engine, a choice of six-speed manual or high-tech CVT with paddle shifters, an exceptionally rigid chassis, tuned suspension offering a compliant ride and great cornering, and precise brakes. It's comfortable and practical and fun to drive.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive around Portland, Oregon, and down the Columbia River Gorge in Washington state.
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