Stalwarts like the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, and Toyota Camry tend to steal headlines when it comes to midsize sedans, so it's a rare treat to sample an underdog in this competitive segment: the Suzuki Kizashi. Starting at approximately $20,000 for the base model and $26,049 for the Sport SLS version I tested, the Kizashi Sport receives an EPA fuel economy estimate of 20-23 MPG city, 29-31 MPG highway, depending on transmission choice. How does Kizashi Sport fare against the big boys? I spent a day behind the wheel on San Diego County's scenic back roads to find out.
First Glance: Sport is a relative term
The Suzuki Kizashi hit the scene in 2010 as an ambitious entry for the back-to-basics brand: it was Suzuki's splashiest launch to date, intending to move the Japanese company away from its reputation as basic transportation, and into a more upscale, aspirational spot in the market.
Kizashi managed to surprise plenty of critics and consumers alike; it topped AutoPacific's 2010 Vehicle Satisfaction Award, leaving Suzuki's growing fanbase to wonder how this 4-cylinder sedan might take on a sportier persona.
So when Suzuki announced a "Sport" variant for 2011, I was excited -- only to find that the package, available on GTS and SLS models, was actually a fairly subtle treatment which includes a reworked front fascia (link goes to photo) and lower grille, body side sills and chrome moldings, a trunk-mounted spoiler, and 18-inch alloy wheels that achieve 2 lbs of weight loss at each corner. The alterations continue with multilink suspension that's been dropped 10mm, a unique steering wheel, contrast-stitched shift and parking brake boots and leather seats (on the SLS model.)
Though canyon carvers will appreciate the Sport model's more focused handling, they might be disappointed to learn that the 185 horsepower 2.4 liter inline-4 remains, mated to either a six-speed manual or continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT) with paddle shifters. But how does all this come together on the road? Let's climb into the driver's seat to find out.
In the Driver's Seat: Have you sat in a Suzuki lately?
If you haven't driven a Suzuki recently, the level of refinement inside Kizashi's cabin might surprise you: My SLS-trimmed test car was outfitted with nicely finished black leather, dual-zone climate control with rear vents, and 10-way power-adjustable heated front seats. It even boasted iPod and USB audio controls and a 10-speaker, 425 watt Rockford Fosgate sound system, integrated Bluetooth with audio streaming, as well as keyless entry and ignition (which is standard on all Kizashi models).
There's enough soft touch material to keep Kizashi from feeling like the bargain basement brand that Suzuki was in the late 1990s, and the overall feeling of solidity is impressive, especially coupled with this sedan's relatively small proportions. Though Kizashi is Suzuki's first mid-size four-door, it certainly sticks to the brand's roots through the same spirit of compact design that has made their diminutive Wagon R the best-selling car in Japan for five years in a row. Kizashi's interior volume, though not cavernous by any stretch of the imagination, offers enough room to feel snug but by no means claustrophobic, and rear seat legroom should be sufficient for most normal sized adults.
On the Road: Hunkered down, ready for (moderate) action
Despite its "Sport" moniker there's no throaty rumble when you press the starter button and fire up the Kizashi, no menacing roar from the aluminum block four-banger's dual exhaust pipes. But after releasing the light clutch and easing off the line, my manual transmission model made its way onto a nearby freeway onramp with a surprising amount of poise. The 185 horsepower engine doesn't feel overeager and its 170 lb-ft of torque peaks at a full 4,000 rpm, so there's not a whole lot of danger you'll attract the attention of law enforcement unless you're making a concerted effort to speed. But as it negotiated a 270 degree on-ramp, its steering feedback and grippy 18-inch rubber made it feel like more of a sports sedan than virtually any of its larger-sized competitors.
The Sport's suspension feels noticeably firmer than standard Kizashi models, and the car has a hunkered down posture that's appreciably more immediate on curvy roads, though the reduced ride height can also translate to annoying bumpiness in urban settings where potholes and surface irregularities are the norm. The cabin is particularly quiet while cruising at highway speeds, and Kizashi's solid chassis never broke a sweat while being hustled through the twisting highways that connect La Jolla to Julian, California. But on the other hand, commuters might find the Sport model's slightly stiffer suspension is a bit too "Euro-tuned" for longer drives, where more compliance would be appreciated.
Journey's End: Sporty enough?
Whether or not Suzuki's 2011 Kizashi Sport is your cup of tea depends primarily on your driving style: if you like loads of low-end torque for the occasional stoplight grand prix, you might miss the V6s offered in some of its competitors. And though VW's recent stake in Suzuki spawned rumors the Kizashi might receive a twin-clutch automatic transmission, we've yet to see the drivetrain options expand beyond the six-speed manual and the paddle shifter-equipped CVT.
But as a midsize that occupies the smaller end of the size spectrum, Kizashi is a sporty sedan that offers more nimbleness and spunk than most of its competitors, in a well-priced package with an impressive list of features. If this model's firm ride turns you off, you owe it to yourself to test drive a non-Sport version, which still serves up a reasonably feisty driving dynamic. Kizashi propels the Suzuki brand further ahead in terms of polish and overall appeal; if this nichey sedan can connect with its potential buyers, Suzuki has a shot at cracking the U.S. market in the same way Hyundai and Kia have recently re-invented their stateside presence. -- Basem Wasef