The Kizashi comes in four trim levels — S, SE, GTS and SLS — ranging from $18,999 for a manual with front-wheel drive to $26,749 for a loaded near-luxury model with automatic and all-wheel drive. Our test Kizashi GTS automatic with all-wheel drive was $25,709, including floormats and a destination charge.
Kizashi! There's something about recent Japanese car names — or at least names from Japanese car companies — that inspire us to bellow them. It started with Toyota: Venza! Now it's Suzuki: Kizashi! This name also sounds like a motorcycle, which is appropriate from the makers of the outrageous sport bike: Hayabusa! See, there's another one. Apparently some English speakers don't like the name Kizashi, which Suzuki says is a Japanese word meaning "something great is coming." I support the name choice because it's unabashedly Japanese, unlike Suzuki's discontinued Forenza and Verona, which evoked Italy. The Verona lasted only from 2004-06. I think I know why: Verona! Just doesn't work.
Exterior & Styling
At 183.1 inches long, the Kizashi is almost 6 inches shorter than the Hyundai Sonata and almost 8 inches shorter than the Fusion and Accord. Motorists never hailed me to shout "Kizashi!" as they drove past, but one guy in an old Mitsubishi Diamante parked to inspect the car and photograph it with his phone. It's different enough to distinguish it from other midsize sedans, without being downright bizarre, and its styling was well-received overall. Our car's Vivid Red paint and 18-inch alloy wheels supported Suzuki's positioning of this model as a sport sedan. How sporty it really is depends on what version you get.
Engine & Transmission
By and large, our Kizashi GTS test car's sportiness ended with its looks, mainly because it was equipped with the optional continuously variable automatic transmission and all-wheel drive. The Kizashi's base curb weight and 180-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder are comparable with competing models, as are the company's claimed zero-to-60-mph times: 7.4 seconds with a six-speed-manual transmission and 8.3 seconds with the CVT — both with front-wheel drive. Add another 154 pounds for the all-wheel drive, and you'll see 9 seconds before your speedometer needle sees the 60 mark. Add three passengers, and you'll take even longer. I'm no leadfoot, and even I thought the car's acceleration was modest. A V-6 isn't offered at this time, though it's not out of the question for the future.
Although car reviewers tend to enjoy manual transmissions (which we didn't test in the Kizashi), more than 90 percent of Americans choose automatics. The reaction to CVTs, however, is mixed. Their operation is most seamless when combined with larger engines. Like regular automatics, CVTs play a greater role in tapping a four-cylinder's high-rev power.
As four-cylinder/CVT combos go, the Kizashi's is a pretty good one overall. If you're already in motion and you nail the accelerator, it might take a second or two before the transmission gets to a ratio low enough to rev the engine high and get the most passing power. This is common among CVTs, and it's a lot easier for me to accept given the growing plague of gear hunting and kickdown lag in recent conventional automatic transmissions. Characteristically, the Kizashi's CVT is at its best when accelerating from a standstill and when it's cruising at a constant speed ... with one exception.
I felt significant engine vibration when trundling along at low to medium speeds, at which the tachometer settles around 1,200 rpm. I was surprised because Suzuki historically has made good small engines. This one feels pretty smooth at high revs and even when the transmission's in Neutral, so I suspect the drivetrain has been programmed for maximum fuel economy, to the extent that cruising puts the engine on the verge of lugging, a condition most often experienced with a stick shift when the gear is too high for the current rpm and the engine struggles and vibrates conspicuously.
Using the transmission's manual-shifting mode via the gear selector or steering-wheel shift paddles, I was able to rev the engine higher and eliminate the bad vibes. (Even though a CVT has no fixed gears, the manual mode jumps among a set of predetermined ratios to emulate a regular transmission.) This practice doesn't really fix the problem, though. Suzuki would be better off to reprogram the drivetrain, even if it costs some mileage. Preliminary EPA ratings are as shown:
|EPA-Estimated MPG (city/highway)|
|16-inch wheels||17- or 18-inch wheels|
|Six-speed manual, FWD||21/31||20/29|
|CVT automatic, FWD||23/31||23/30|
|CVT automatic, AWD||23/30||22/29|
This is the first time I've seen different mpg figures for different wheel sizes, which actually reflects differences in the tires' rolling resistance. This isn't unique to Suzuki; it's just that most mileage ratings reflect an average of such differences. As shown, the CVT delivers higher mileage than the stick shift. If the preliminary estimates are correct, the Kizashi is in line with four-cylinder class leaders, and most impressive is its mileage with all-wheel drive, which comes only with the CVT. Its maximum 23/30 mpg city/highway blows away the all-wheel-drive Ford Fusion's 18/25 mpg — and does so for $21,749, more than $6,000 less than the most affordable all-wheel-drive Fusion.
The base Subaru Legacy with standard all-wheel drive and an optional CVT beats the Kizashi on price at $20,995 — as well as by 1 mpg in highway driving, at 23/31 mpg. Two Legacy trim levels are base-priced below the all-wheel-drive Kizashi, but when equipped with the standard manual transmission, their mileage is way behind at 19/27 mpg.
Over the Ice & Through the Snow
A white Christmas gave me plenty of opportunities to test the all-wheel drive, and the Kizashi proved to be a competent snowmobile. Now, the Kizashi has a feature that's rare among cars with all-wheel drive: an on/off button. We typically define all-wheel drive as a four-wheel-drive system that requires no intervention from the driver and lacks a low range. Suzuki says leaving the car in front-wheel-drive mode saves gas, but most automakers have acknowledged the difference is minimal and opted for the security of a system that's always on. Rest assured that the mileage with all-wheel drive shut off isn't as high as it would be in a front-wheel-drive car, which is lighter.
What was useful about the Kizashi's feature was it showed me how good the traction control is with front-wheel drive. Some traction control is so conservative that it impedes your progress on loose snow; it cuts the fuel supply and clamps the brakes with such zeal that you end up creeping along making grunting sounds — not all of them from the car. The Kizashi allowed its drive wheels to spin just enough to build momentum but not to lose control.
The all-wheel drive adds a sure-footedness you simply can't get in any two-wheel-drive car. For snow and ice, it's most useful if you live in a hilly region and/or an urban area with inadequate snow removal, but it's not for anything beyond light off-pavement driving. Given the car's front-drive performance and the standard electronic stability system, most drivers can do without all-wheel drive, saving themselves some money and gas — and improving acceleration.
Two wintertime quirks included a windshield washer system that froze up when it wasn't all that cold outside and a passenger-side wiper that refused to conform to the windshield. These might be isolated incidents, but they're exactly the kind of wrinkles that can happen on an all-new model and require ironing out. It's something to keep an eye out for.
Ride & Handling
Even with its 18-inch sport wheels and low-profile tires, my Kizashi rode quite comfortably. I felt more pavement disruptions when I had three passengers on board. In some cars it's the opposite. The car handled competently, and I can imagine it being sportier and more entertaining with the manual and front-wheel drive, but it didn't come across in this version — or at least in this weather. In general I liked the electric power steering, mainly because it snaps back to center definitively after a turn; many electric systems don't. There was also no detectable torque steer. The downside is it could use more power assist. The wheel feels too heavy. Again, this is a sporty approach, but it just didn't match the character of my heavier test car.
The interior is where observers were most pleasantly surprised, thanks to a clean design, good materials and construction, and a mostly quiet cabin, excepting the occasional engine rumble mentioned above. I particularly liked the cloth seats and the sparing use of relatively convincing faux aluminum on the dashboard. The surfaces are soft to the touch where it matters most — on the armrests and such. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes; it's leather-wrapped in all but the manual S trim level, and audio controls are standard across the board. The Kizashi SE adds cruise control.
Heated leather seats come on the SLS trim level along with a power front passenger seat, but the cloth driver's seat includes 10-way power adjustment, lumbar control and three memory positions on all but Kizashi S. The S has a manual driver's height adjustment. The seats are comfortable. Given its smaller exterior size, the Kizashi's roominess isn't bad at all, though the class leaders beat it by an inch or more in most seating dimensions. Two backseat passengers thought the legroom was a bit snug, but when I moved the front seats forward a bit, all was well. I actually prefer the backrest angle over that of the Accord, which leans back too much. A tall floor hump in the backseat makes the center seat even less desirable than usual. Another complication involves the detachable center belt, whose anchor is mounted so far to one side, it's uncomfortable for the window-seat passenger.
A Stereo of Note
As a longtime audio freak as well as a car reviewer, I know that speaker counts, wattage claims and the term "premium stereo" mean nothing in the real world. I like to highlight when an automaker gets it right — as Suzuki did with its Rockford Fosgate upgrade system, standard in the GTS and SLS trims. Lesser known than stock stereo brands like Bose, Boston Acoustics and Harman Kardon, Rockford was a star of aftermarket car audio's heyday in the 1990s, and the Kizashi shows what Rockford can do when given enough money and early access in a car's development. The deck-mounted subwoofer delivers extended, well-controlled bass that sounds anchored to a front soundstage, not booming away in the backseat. The frequency response and clarity are excellent for anyone with the sense not to boost the tone controls, and even the spatial rendition is good, though the front door tweeters tend to call attention to themselves. A great effort overall — better than what you'll find in many high-priced luxury cars. It's a shame you can't get it as an option in the Kizashi's lower trim levels.
A standard USB port lets you control compatible iPods, which my old Mini apparently isn't, but I was able to play MP3 files from a simple flash drive. Through Bluetooth, the Rockford system can play streaming audio from a compatible phone, which impressed reviewer David Thomas.
As an all-new model, the Kizashi hasn't been crash-tested yet by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It features eight airbags, including seat-mounted torso airbags for all outboard seats as well as side curtains. Also standard are antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. For all of the safety features, click here.
Kizashi in the Market
The Kizashi catches your attention with a low starting price and continues to impress with its interior quality and features like dual-zone automatic climate control, a USB stereo input and standard keyless entry and engine start. Unfortunately, few features are offered as options at any trim level, meaning you might have to climb the trim-level ladder.
The price jumps from $18,999 to $21,499 for the SE, which adds the automatic transmission, 17-inch wheels, a power driver's seat and the option of heated side mirrors. The $22,499 GTS reverts to the manual transmission and adds a moonroof, fog lights and the Rockford stereo with Bluetooth. The $24,399 SLS adds leather seats (heated in front), an auto-dimming rearview mirror, auto on/off headlights, HomeLink, heated side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers and rear parking sonar. All prices above are for front-drive and each trim's standard transmission. The automatic costs $1,100-$1,500, depending on trim level, and all-wheel drive adds an additional $1,250.
These prices are competitive, but they're not groundbreaking for a newcomer in a crowded segment, especially when compared with feature-packed, bargain-priced quality models like the Hyundai Sonata. The Kizashi's best chance of breaking through comes with its affordable and efficient all-wheel-drive model, which remains rare in the midsize sedan class.
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