The Suzuki Kizashi was all-new for 2010, and two new Sport models have been added to the 2011 Kizashi lineup of sporty sedans.
Stacking its quality up against a full field of four-cylinder sports sedans, Suzuki last year put the performance brands of the world on notice that they have some unexpected company. Suzuki wasn't just bragging, as the Kizashi has been a resounding sales and driving success.
Kizashi uses one engine, a good 2.4-liter aluminum four-cylinder with variable valve timing that does the job well, getting about 25 combined mpg, by both EPA ratings and our couple weeks in Kizashi models. It runs smooth and makes 185 or 180 horsepower, depending on whether it's mated to the 6-speed manual transmission or Continuously Variable Transaxle, which operates automatically or can be shifted through six steps using 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 an option. It's a sophisticated system that turns on and off, like some SUVs, so that you can use the normal front-wheel-drive on dry pavement and not waste fuel. Called i-AWD, the all-wheel-drive package, available with the CVT, brings Suzuki to the game with the big boys, such as the Subaru Legacy and Audi A3.
Styling-wise, the Kizashi 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.
New for 2011 are the Kizashi GTS and Kizashi SLS models. Both feature special Sport bodywork, including a more muscular front fascia and lower grille, side sill extensions, spoiler on the trunk lid, and 18-inch alloy wheels. The crossed mesh grille is titanium colored.
Inside the cabin, 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. Even the base model has remote entry, pushbutton start, power windows, USB port, and other equipment many base models lack, although cruise control is not included at that lowest price. Both Sport models get their own steering wheels, and the SLS Sport gets contrasting stitching on its leather seats.
Kizashi straddles the line between compact and midsize sedans. Popular Mechanics magazine included it in a face-off of midsize sedans in 2010, and the Kizashi scored first-place in handling, braking, skid pad grip, and acceleration, against Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Subaru Legacy, Nissan Altima, Mazda 6, and Chevrolet Malibu.
Safety-wise, the Kizashi leads the field, with no less than eight standard airbags, advanced stability control using the ABS, projector beam headlamps, and a tire pressure monitor. The Kizashi has surpassed the government's 2014 standards for side pole impact and offset front collision.
Suzuki Kizashi S ($18,999); SE ($22,049); GTS ($23,049); SLS ($24,849)
The styling of the Kizashi is Suzuki 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. Well, maybe just a little bit, the twin chrome integrated angular tailpipes. A touch of cool. We're okay with that. The 18-inch alloy wheels are eye-catching.
The Kizashi has a rounded, Audi-like stance. In profile, especially the roofline and front valance with the S and SE models, it's Lexus-like, with a neat little nose. 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 already say so. Headlights fit just right, and the lines are clean to the three other air openings, with the two outside slots holding the fog lights.
All SLS and GTS models come with Sport trim, which includes special bodywork. The new fascia on the Sport models is full and rounded, reminiscent of the aerodynamic nose on the Kizashi that Suzuki and Road & Track magazine took to Bonneville and set a class record with, an astounding 203.7 mph, thanks mostly to a big supercharger.
It's quite tidy from the rear, although you can't really tell the Kizashi is special until you see the chrome Kizashi nameplate, in racy Japanese-y script.
Kizashi's interior is comfortable and free of small inconveniences, and that's saying a lot. High-quality materials make even the base Kizashi S feel like a more expensive car. The layout of the center stack is slick and efficient, finished in black and aluminum plastic. You can easily understand and operate the knobs and controls, everything in its logical place, handsomely so.
The instrumentation isn't as clean as it might be, with dozens of little lines as increments on the tachometer and speedo, running all the way to a dreamy 150 mph; and there's a reflection at night that blurs the edges of the smaller gauges. There's a 2×4-inch digital display between the tach and speedo, with access to everything from outside temp to instantaneous fuel mileage. We mostly watched our average mpg, which ended up 23.8 mpg.
The Sport SLS that we drove had handsome cross-stitched leather seats with high-density, low-fatigue foam. The 425-watt 10-speaker Rockford Fosgate sound system sounded beautiful, but the FM reception was often weak (though this was in bad weather). The leather-wrapped shift lever feels good.
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. There's a nice 3-spoke steering wheel with controls; it feels good in your hands when driving through the twists. Fold-down rear headrests improve rearview visibility. Overhead and footwell ambient lighting is cool.
We've put a lot of miles on various Kizashi models. There was one all-day run on choppy pavement in the Sport models with lots of turns to toss your butt and shoulders around, and another couple hundred miles on a dark curving interstate in a hard long drizzle, with puddles all over the freeway. The fit of the seat made it all no sweat, and we enjoyed the hours and concentrated driving.
We got more seat time in an S model with cloth upholstery that was smooth and elegant in charcoal. If you skip the leather you'll still have a stylish car. You can keep the Kizashi's price near base MSRP, and still get the good stuff.
There are 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 useful in a car; in addition, there's a hatch to the trunk for skis, 2x4s, and other long cargo.
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 very quiet. The Kizashi offers extensive corrosion protection, including resin panels under the body, zinc-plated steel sheets, and hot wax imbedded in the suspension mounting points.
Kizashi comes with keyless ignition: Press the Start button to fire it up. We prefer a traditional key.
Chassis and suspension are the best parts of the driving impressions. And brakes. Engine is good too. That about covers everything.
The Kizashi was developed on the Autobahn, alpine roads in Switzerland, cobblestone streets in England, and on the Nurburgring racing circuit. The firm KYB shock absorbers don't swallow the bumps or smooth them out, but neither do they transmit them. They follow the undulations in the road, and that's not uncomfortable but confidence inspiring. You know they're paying attention. At high speeds on a curvy freeway, you can still feel the shocks working. The car moves a bit as it follows the road, so you have to stay alert.
Suzuki put a great deal of time and pride into the suspension and 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, which is why high-performance KYB rear shocks are used, with 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. We weren't in the Alps, merely the Gifford Pinchot National Forest around Washington's Mount Adams, but we'll take it.
The Kizashi feels sportier than the Mazda6 we recently tested, especially the engine. It's smooth, sharp, and sounds nice, from zero to 6500 rpm redline, but 6000 rpm is a sweet spot to upshift with the 6-speed gearbox. The engine characteristics are steady. Against its competitors, the 185-horsepower Kizashi is solid; by comparison, the Acura TSX has 201 hp, the Mazda6 170 hp. But the Kizashi is quicker from zero to 60 than either of them, and a lot cheaper than the TSX. It also comes with way more standard equipment.
We also drove a Kizashi with the CVT, running it hard for about 80 challenging, curvy miles. The CVT sucks 5 horsepower and brings the redline down to 6000 rpm, and compromises the sportiness. It shifts with paddles through six steps (like gears in a gearbox, but not), and you have to shift like mad to keep the engine in the powerband, even with good torque.
At full throttle, the engine jumps to 6000 rpm and just stays there and buzzes away as the car gains speed. The response of the CVT is 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. But 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 found the SLS with the 6-speed manual quiet under acceleration and even quieter at a cruising speed. Eighty miles per hour is only 3000 rpm in 6th gear, and the car might as well be gliding, for all its smoothness. And because the torque is a healthy 170 pound-feet at 4000 rpm, there's enough torque at lower rpm in 6th gear to accelerate when needed, without downshifting all the time. While we were at it, we got nearly 25 mpg cruising at 80 mpg.
We got about a dozen hot laps around Portland International Raceway in the Kizashi. A rev limiter intrudes (mildly) at 6500 rpm, so shifting at 6000 rpm works well. 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.
On Portland International Raceway, it didn't understeer. That's rare for any front-wheel-drive car, including some of the expensive sports sedans. Suzuki brought a test mule to the launch, a Kizashi fitted with a Suzuki/GM 3.6-liter V6 engine making more than 250 horsepower, and we took some laps in that hotrod; driven with appropriate restraint, it didn't understeer either. No V6 is planned for the Kizashi, but the point was proven, that the Kizashi suspension is built to take a lot more horsepower. A turbocharged Kizashi is said to be on the way.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 23/30 mpg City/Highway for a Suzuki Kizashi SE with the CVT automatic. The CVTs generally get better fuel economy than the manual transmissions, beating them by 2-3 mpg around town. All-wheel drive costs about one mpg: A GTS FWD CVT is rated 23/30 mpg, with a GTS AWD CVT rating 22/29 mpg. Best rating is from the Kizashi S CVT with 23/31 mpg; we're guessing the actual difference is likely a fraction of 1 mpg attributable to the lighter weight and skinnier tires of the base model.
As for 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 optional all-wheel drive moves the Kizashi into exclusive territory along with the Audi A3 and Subaru Legacy. Called i-AWD, or intelligent all-wheel drive, it's turned on by the driver, and moves up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels.
The Suzuki Kizashi is a small sports sedan that offers more standard equipment than its competitors, including safety features, at a slightly lower price. The S and SE models offer much, and for more money there are Sport models, plus optional all-wheel drive. The engineering is excellent, with a solid four-cylinder engine, transmission choices including a high-tech CVT with paddle shifters, an exceptionally rigid chassis, tuned suspension offering a compliant ride and great cornering, and precise brakes.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Washington's Columbia River Gorge.