Compact sedan proves that cheap doesn't mean junk

The compact Suzuki Forenza offers a high level of amenities at a budget price. Its interior offers leather seating and a full complement of standard features.

Suzuki's new compact sedan, Forenza, proves that a car can be cheap without being chintzy.

Starting at $12,499, Forenza comes well-equipped with a full load of power and convenience features as standard equipment contained in a sleek, nicely finished body. Competing directly with such compact leaders as Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus and Mazda Protege, Forenza gives up nothing in style or amenities.

Drivers may find performance lackluster, however, with a suspension that is too soft and poorly controlled and an engine with mundane acceleration.

Even though it wears a Japanese nameplate, Forenza comes to us by way of South Korea. Forenza is the second Suzuki product to be made by the defunct Daewoo Motors, which also makes the midsize Suzuki Verona. The bankrupt South Korean automaker was bought by General Motors, which also owns a hunk of Suzuki.

So it would seem that the collapse of Daewoo was the best thing that could happen to Suzuki. Now the small automaker, best known for its sterling line of sport motorcycles and the unfortunate Samurai rollover controversy, has a full line of products: the subcompact Aerio, Forenza and Verona automobiles and Vitara, Grand Vitara and XL-7 sport utilities. All but Forenza and Verona are made in Japan.

GM also sells a Daewoo product, the subcompact Chevrolet Aveo. Daewoo never made much of an impact in the United States, so it's hard to judge how reliable the sedans might turn out to be.

What it is
Another Suzuki made by Daewoo, Forenza is an attractive compact sedan that offers a lot for a little. The test car was the top model, an EX that came complete with all the trimmings, including leather seats, for $15,999.

Performance
The four-cylinder engine was upgraded midyear to 126 from 119 horsepower, giving the lightweight car enough acceleration for all practical purposes.

The car feels quick off the line but gets bogged down in midrange.

The 2-liter mill is fairly sophisticated with dual-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, and it runs smoothly and competently. Acceleration is loud, typical of a small four-banger, but settles down to a polite hum at cruising speed.

The EX comes standard with a four-speed automatic transmission, while the base S and midgrade LX models come standard with a five-speed manual with automatic optional.

The automatic works well and transmits enough power to the front wheels, but I always prefer a stick shift in a small, four-cylinder car.

Drivability
Forenza is one of those cars that would benefit immeasurably from a decent set of shock absorbers. As it is, the suspension is too soft a nd springy, with the rear end feeling mushy over dips and heaves.

It was a brand-new sedan that felt like it had 50,000 miles on the suspension.

Body sway was noticeable in sharp turns. The handling overall was nimble enough but unimpressive. The speed-sensitive power steering was responsive but numb.

Four-wheel disc brakes with antilock come standard.

The ride was comfortable, though road and wind noise were evident at freeway speeds.

Styling
The sharply faceted body styled by Italian designer Pininfarina is sporty and attractive, and the fit and finish are impressive, considering the price range. Styled alloy wheels and fog lamps on the EX didn't hurt.

Still, I think it would have been beneficial for Suzuki (or Daewoo or Pininfarina) to have pushed the envelope on styling, maybe taken some chances that would get Forenza more notice. As it is, the good-looking little car is not much different from similar products by other automakers and fades into traffic unnoticed.

Interior
Surprisingly roomy, considering Forenza's small exterior dimensions, loaded with features and well-finished. This is a livable sedan with a much higher level of features than you'd expect for $15,999.

Power windows and mirrors, remote locking, an eight-speaker audio system with CD changer, leather seating and steering-wheel cover, cruise control, climate control, steering wheel audio controls, power sunroof, all standard.

Pricing
Everything on the EX comes standard.

No options, no charge for shipping. The base price and the total price are the same: $15,999.

Bottom line
On the plus side, Suzuki offers a lot of style and content in the Forenza EX for the price of most bare-bones competitors.

The sedan looks good, has enough room, is comfortable and drives well enough.

On the minus side, the drivability is not as good as similar products from Japan or from South Korean competitor Hyundai, which also offers decent small cars loaded with features at a reasonable price.

Also, there's the question of Daewoo, which has yet to establish a solid reputation in this country, so you may be taking a chance on reliability.

There is a strong warranty that somewhat mitigates that concern: seven years or 100,000 miles.

Suzuki Forenza EX
Vehicle type:
Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive.

Base price:
$15,999.

Price as tested:
$15,999.

Engine:
2-liter inline four, 126 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, 131 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.

Transmission:
Four-speed automatic.

Wheelbase:
102.4 inches.

Curb weight:
2,756 pounds.

EPA mileage:
22 city, 30 highway.

Highs:
Budget pricing.
Well-equipped.
Sharp styling.

Lows:
Mushy suspension.
Mild acceleration.
It's really a Daewoo.