Editor's note: This review was written in March 2011 about the 2011 Suzuki Kizashi. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Introduced for the 2010 model year, the Kizashi midsize sedan was the most impressive, competitive model in Suzuki's history, and our enthusiasm hasn't abated in 2011.
My impressions in the 2010 review still apply, but a few things have changed for 2011: Suzuki has added a Sport designation to the GTS and the all-wheel-drive version of the SLS. That means added chrome accents up front, side sill extensions, a trunklid spoiler and 18-inch wheels. See the two model years compared.
Some other developments are noteworthy: The Kizashi took third place in a Cars.com comparison test among eight leading family sedans; buyers have been raving about the 2010 in Cars.com's consumer reviews; and this time I got to test a 2011 version I missed last time: a manual, front-wheel-drive version of the Sport SLS trim level. That car is basically the opposite personality of the 2010 Kizashi GTS automatic with all-wheel drive.
Last time around, I noted that I could imagine the Kizashi being sporty, but that the automatic with all-wheel drive wasn't the sporty version. The manual with front-wheel drive definitely is. It hits 60 mph in just over 7 seconds — rather than more than 9 — and is fleet-footed on twisty roads. The drivers in our comparison test called it "zippy," "peppy" and "the driver's car."
The six-speed manual transmission is well-geared and the clutch pedal is light enough, but the shifter's a bit long and clumsy. It's also not the nicest-looking stick, but that's due in part to its Reverse lockout collar just under the knob — the type you pull up on to access Reverse. It's not very streamlined, but I think it's the absolute best way to lock out the Reverse gear, and I wish all automakers would use it, looks be damned. It's ergonomic, and the stick absolutely will not go into Reverse unless you want it to. Plus, it's abundantly clear when it is in gear. Not so for many of the other shifters on the market.
Driving this version also confirmed my suspicion that, at modest speeds, the optional continuously variable automatic transmission 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. When I allowed this version to decelerate to the point at which a lower gear was needed, the vibration was exactly what I experienced with the CVT, supporting my claim that the latter should be recalibrated.
The Kizashi actually turns heads, and that's rare in the midsize sedan class. After more than a year, I like it even more; with the new Sport treatment, the car looks a bit more aggressive without going over the top. Our Platinum Silver Metallic paint looked excellent, and the grille's metallic look is very nicely executed. It's not metal, but it doesn't look too plasticky.
Ditto for the interior, the quality of which continues to impress, despite the fact that the market has continued to advance. Both in our comparison test and in casual test drives of different Kizashi models, observers have described the quality as above average. Leather costs more, but that doesn't always translate to quality. Thankfully, in the Kizashi Sport SLS, the leather was as good for its type as the fabric was in the GTS.
The Kizashi does have its shortcomings, one of which is backseat roominess: As mentioned in the 2010 review, legroom in particular is a couple of inches below the norm. It also has a couple of quirks that showed up both in our 2010 and 2011 test cars, one of which I'm ready to call a defect: In both cars, the windshield washers froze and clogged when it wasn't particularly cold outside — right around freezing or just below. Also, I didn't mention it last time, but the 2011 reminded me how susceptible the Kizashi is to outside odors. I know it's a weird issue, but diesel fumes and even stuff like cigarette smoke from nearby cars readily found their way into the ventilation system. Perhaps this means there's a greater than normal supply of fresh air, which could be good, but sometimes the air isn't very fresh. With me, the Kizashi's recirculation button gets a workout.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the Kizashi achieved the top score of Good in frontal, side and rear impacts, and was rated Acceptable for roof strength. In this crowded class, 11 models do the Kizashi one better, earning a Good rating for roof strength, which predicts rollover protection.
The Kizashi 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 the Kizashi's safety features, click here.
Kizashi in the Market
For what it is, the Kizashi is priced reasonably well, though Suzuki might be wise to lower the price as an incentive for buyers. Both the compact and midsize classes are crowded and include some new, high-quality vehicles. If all a car had to do to succeed in the market was be a good car, the Kizashi would be in excellent shape. Unfortunately, it's not that simple, and the Kizashi isn't exactly flying out of showrooms.
Take a car like the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta, a redesigned model that has increased in size and decreased in price to less than $15,000 to start. We're not wild about the new one's interior, but it has excellent name recognition and a reputation that's perhaps stronger than the current model itself. In the real world, that makes it hard for a little-known model like the Kizashi to compete.
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