There is a gaping hole in the under $20,000 automobile market. Well, not exactly gaping. It's more of a large compact hole, or a small midsize one, depending on your perspective.
Ever since the Subaru Legacy and Mazda 6 went supersize in order to go head to head with best sellers like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the U.S. has been without an affordable sedan that's bigger than a bread box, but not quite a refrigerator. It's never been a very popular type of car here, the way it is in Europe and Asia, but with tens of thousands of people willing to shell out for one each year it presents a nice batch of underserved customers for a company that only sells tens of thousands of cars here each year.
Enter the Suzuki Kizashi.
On first glance - and second, and third, and even after standing there staring at it for an hour or so - it looks all the world like a new Volkswagen Jetta. In fact, the Kizashi is closer in size to a Passat in most dimensions, except for a back seat that comes up a little short. And while appearances are only sheetmetal deep, the comparison with the Vee Dubs goes much deeper.
Put aside any preconceptions you may have about Suzuki automobiles (surely a few of you have them), the Kizashi feels like it's built a strongly as a bank vault, and with five-star safety ratings, apparently is. The door handles - dopplegangers for the ones on a Jetta - respond with a firm, well-machined action, the doors themselves following suit. The interior’s familiar dual cockpit motif is decked out almost entirely of materials that are soft to the touch and shiny trim that does much more good to the design than harm. The typeface on the gauges would look at home on a Breitling watch. It even smells like a new car should, and the one I tested had cloth seats.
The Kisazhi also had eight airbags, keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, projector beam headlamps, a six-speed manual transmission and stability control, all of which are all standard, even the $18,999 base model. Uplevel trims add features like a 425-watt audio system, bluetooth audio, and a 10-way power driver's seat with memory. My front-wheel-drive GTS tester was also shod with large 18-inch wheels and a sunroof of just average size. A continuously variable automatic transmission is available on all models, as is all-wheel-drive, which is only paired with it.
For now, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder is the sole engine powering the Kizashi lineup, turning out 185 hp through the manual transmission, and 180 when connected to the CVT. Contemporary mores compel me to tell you that it is capable of a high of 31 mpg highway in some models, and a low of 29 mpg in others, like the GTS, but my mind is elsewhere.
From the moment you press the start button, the treats ensue. Engine and exhaust are both deep and distinct, far more satisfying than most four-bangers, especially ones from the Land of the Rising Sun. Snick the short-throw shifter into first, let up on the perfectly calibrated clutch, and you pull away without fuss. Change up through a few more gears, feel the no-miss shifts, and it won't sound like hyperbole to say that if you swapped the "S" on the steering wheel with the letters three and four after it, no one would be the wiser. Actually, they might be, because in many ways the Kizashi feels better than any run of the mill VW.
Steering is electrically assisted and variable, but with a heft that both imbues a sense of quality and a direct feel at all speeds. Turn it and the sport-tuned suspension reacts like something with that adjective should. Better still, on any surface, the ride quality is unquestionably superb. Against the grain of decades of just managing to keep cars upright, Suzuki has hit that all-elusive balance between handling and comfort that most automakers dare not dream of. Have a pothole or ten on your street? Not a problem. Enter that jughandle a bit quicker than expected? Go ahead, it dares you.
Ignore the bottom line on the window sticker, and the word premium will surely come to mind when you're asked to describe the Kizashi to curious onlookers. This car is simply the class of the current Japanese field. Granted, it’s the only player on that particular field, but put it up against the compacts and midsizers that bookend it and good luck finding one that doesn't come across a little chintzy in one regard or another. It is one of those rare cars that have no single standout feature, but also nothing blatantly wrong with them.
Throw price into the mix, and the Kizashi a seriously value-added vehicle. It's like spending Korean car money on a German car with a Japanese name - the only Japanese vehicle with one. Some people I've spoken to about that think it's a bit over the top, but when you consider the kind of motorcycle riding, Samurai-loving types who actually care enough to know Suzuki still makes cars, the logic behind it makes a lot of sense.
Granted, Suzuki came in at the bottom of the most recent J.D. Power and Associates dependability study, but Volkswagen was just one ahead of it, and that's for 2007 model year cars, Long before the Kizashi went into production. On the latest Initial Quality Survey, little Suzi was ranked #10, ahead of VW, Audi and even BMW. That means the company is making a good first impression, the way the Kizashi does.
Check back in three years to see if it deserved it.
2010 Suzuki Kizashi
Base Price: $18,999
Type: five-passenger sedan
Power: 185/180 hp, 170 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual or CVT
MPG (max): 23 city/31 highway