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Automotive Traveler Magazine: 2011 02 2011 Suzuki Kizashi Page 1

Behind the Wheel: 2011 Suzuki Kizashi Sport SLS

While they are not as well known as its motorcycles, Suzuki serves up a line of cars and SUVs. Its newest is the mid-sized Kizashi, positioned as an alternative to better-known European sports sedans. Richard Truesdell checks out whether it delivers on the promise.

Back in 2008 on one of my weekly summertime spy shooting expeditions to Death Valley, I came across one of the most thoroughly cloaked prototypes I'd ever encountered. At first, I thought that it was a refresh of a Dodge Avenger. Boy, I wasn't even close.

I walked right up to the prototype and snapped my shots, but it wasn't until later that I realized the vehicle was a Suzuki, the production version of the Kizashi Concept Car.

At the 2009 New York International Automobile Show, Suzuki launched the production version of the Kizashi. Sales started in late 2009 to generally favorable reviews from the automotive press. Competing in the mid-sized sedan category, Suzuki is trying to position the Kizashi against more than just larger cars such as the Ford Fusion, the Honda Accord, and the Toyota Camry.

The Japanese automaker also wants the Kizashi to stand as an alternative to C-segment sport sedans from Europe, especially the Audi A4, the Mercedes-Benz C300, and, for good measure, the Acura TL (which, like the Kizashi, is built in Japan). When comparably equipped, almost all of them cost far more than our test car here, a six-speed manual Kizashi Sport SLS.

First, a little background is in order. For most of the last decade, GM owned a minority stake in Suzuki. Together, they purchased the assets of South Korea's bankrupt Daewoo Motors, renaming it GM DAT.

GM DAT supplied Suzuki with a mid-sized sedan, the Forenza, which was sold in the United States between 2004 and 2006.

As part of its reorganization, GM sold its stake in Suzuki while the Kizashi was in development. With GM's exit, Volkswagen moved in to take a minority stake, hoping in particular to improve its position in India where Suzuki is a market leader.

The Kizashi does share some of its basic architecture with several GM DAT models. Yet the car has been so completely reworked that it is, in essence, a Suzuki-developed platform designed with more sporting characteristics than is common in the mid-sized category. It is built at Suzuki's new manufacturing center in Sagara, Japan.

With an overall length of 183.1 inches, the Kizashi is actually smaller than mainstream mid-sized players like the Fusion, the Accord, the Camry, the Chevy Malibu, and the Nissan Altima, all of which are five to 10 inches longer. Its compact overall dimensions serve to reinforce its more sporting nature and attributes.

At $26,049, the Kizashi Sport SLS is the biggest, most expensive car ever offered by Suzuki in the United States--yet it is value-priced when compared to most of its mid-sized competitors.

All 2011 Kizashi models are equipped with a new 2.4-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder engine. When mated to the six-speed manual transmission, it delivers 185 horsepower at 6,500 r.p.m. with 170 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 r.p.m. (When matched up to the Continuously Variable Transmission or CVT, the engine is tuned to deliver 180 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m.) Over the course of my 500-mile test drive, the Kizashi Sport SLS delivered a real-world 29.1 m.p.g., bettering its EPA city/highway numbers of 20/29.

My test model was equipped with the six-speed manual. Unless someone in your household hasn't yet mastered the art of driving a stick, pick the six-speed manual transmission over the optional CVT (see sidebar below).

While its shifter lacks the finesse of the best in class, the Honda Civic, my Kizashi exhibited a precise feel when rowing the gears. I would certainly classify it as very good.

Where the Kizashi truly shines is in the handling department. In this regard, Suzuki's offering has more in common with the Audi A4, the Mercedes-Benz C300, and the Acura TSX than with mid-sized family sedans. In the KizashiKicks.com comparison, those are the vehicles against which the Kizashi was benchmarked.

According to the numbers from the third-party testing firm, Consumer Automotive Research, the Kizashi more than held its own. In a 600-foot slalom, the Audi A4 Front Trak ran the gauntlet in 6.83 seconds at a speed of 59.9 m.p.h., and the Acura TSX did so in 7.45 seconds at 54.9 m.p.h. The Kizashi ran through the cones in 6.97 seconds at 58.6 m.p.h.

On the 200-foot skid pad, the Kizashi turned in .94g lateral acceleration compared to .92g for the A4 and .87g for the TSX. (These are exceptional numbers. Just think--10 years ago, anything greater than .90g was supercar territory.) Part of this is due to the Kizashi's extremely stiff structure combined with multi-link rear suspension constructed with embedded aluminum. This allows for crisp, nimble handling with excellent stability and reduced chassis vibration.

The Kizashi's sophisticated system offers standard four-wheel disc brakes and includes suppliers such as Akebono, a world leader in noise, vibration and harshness and a leading brake supplier for Japan's famed bullet trains. In the benchmark 60-0 braking test, the Kizashi stopped in just 114 feet. Compare that to 119 feet for the A4 and 124 feet for the TSX.

The Kizashi is equipped with all the expected safety gear, including a class-exclusive standard eight airbags, an electronic stability program, an anti-lock braking system with electronic brake-force distribution, and a tire-pressure-monitoring system.

The 2011 Kizashi and Kizashi Sport already meet higher-speed front crash standards that will take effect in 2012, as well as the rigorous side barrier and side-pole crash standards that will take effect in 2014.

Better visibility is achieved with standard projector beam headlights, supplemental side-mounted signal lights, fold-down rear headrests, available rear sonar, and the newly introduced backup camera. Further enhancing driver confidence, the Kizashi also offers a reinforced rigid chassis for added stability and control.

As for the interior, Suzuki's designers have succeeded on almost every count. My Sport SLS package included premium leather seating surfaces on its front sport seats and fold-down rear seats (front seats feature a three-stage heater). Nothing made me feel I was seated in an inexpensive family car.

The interior was exceptionally quiet, contributing to the upscale feel. (In the same Consumer Automotive Research report, the Kizashi scored 69.25dB, while the Audi A4, the Mercedes-Benz C300, and the Acura TSX scored 71.25. Lower is better.)

The enhanced quiet of the Kizashi's cabin allowed me to enjoy the 425-watt, 10-speaker Rockford-Fosgate audio system with integrated iPod functionality. The Bluetooth hands-free system was a snap to set up once I ignored the quick start guide, which appeared to be incorrect, and consulted the more comprehensive owner's manual. I was even able to stream song files stored on my Nexus One Android smartphone through the audio system--a nifty feature.

With the soft-touch surfaces, the overall execution was well above what I expected. More importantly, even the cloth interior in the SE AWD felt of durable, high-quality material, which isn't always the case.

Overall, I give the interior high marks, marred only by the fact that the two interior fuse panels--one above the driver's kick panel, the other behind the glove box--are very much inaccessible, especially in the dark. I learned this when my computer's inverter popped the fuse.

The Kizashi included two other amenities unexpected in this price class. First, the dual-zone climate control. Second, heading back out-side, the 18-inch alloy wheels with upgraded 235/45-18 tires.

As for the gas station test, the car garnered compliments, with most admirers thinking it looked European and cost in excess of $30,000. In that respect, Suzuki's attempt to benchmark the Kizashi against cars in classes above it has succeeded in much the same way Ford has done so with the new Focus.

Yet Suzuki faces an interesting dilemma with the Kizashi, and I don't just mean the car's difficult name (it's pronounced "Kee-zah-shee"). The Suzuki brand is more clearly associated with its SUVs, motorcycles, and ATVs. And with fewer than 300 dealers from coast to coast, you may have to travel a bit to test drive the Kizashi.

It's worth the effort. Get behind the wheel, and you'll discover that the 2011 Suzuki Kizashi is a highly compelling combination of styling, features, and performance. Go beyond your preconceived notions about Suzuki, and you will be rewarded with an economical and very well designed mid-sized family four-door cleverly disguised as a pricey Euro-style sport sedan.

Sidebar

In addition to its front-wheel-drive versions, Suzuki offers the Kizashi with its next-generation i-AWD system, a rare option in its class. It certainly helps give the Kizashi some Audi-like chops when conditions deteriorate. Activated by the driver, the system is designed for inclement weather rather than off-roading. It sends power to the rear wheels immediately upon acceleration. Torque split--up to 50:50 front/rear--remains dependent on several factors, including wheel slippage, throttle, and steering input. The system worked seamlessly --as it should--when I tested it in several low-friction situations during almost biblical rains this winter in Southern California.

In my test car, the i-AWD system was mated to what Suzuki calls a performance-tuned CVT. Like many CVTs, it often felt that it was in the wrong "gear," causing the engine to rev higher and resulting in an unrefined driving experience. Although Suzuki claims the calibration for the CVT was validated on Germany's Autobahn, Switzerland's Alpine hairpins, the cobblestone roads of rural England, and the legendary Nürburgring, I say, opt for the six-speed manual transmission. It increases the Kizashi's sporting quotient tenfold.