By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Suzuki has a handle on bikes.
From the brutal 200 MPH ‘Busa to the smooth-cruising Boulevard series, Suzuki is a dominant player on two wheels.
But the company hasn’t yet become a major player on four wheels (unlike Honda, which also sells bikes and does a tidy business selling cars, too).
That may be changing, though.
For the first time in a long time, Suzuki is doing ok selling cars in the U.S. market. Sales of the new Kizashi sedan, for example, are up almost 40 percent so far this year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that while the percentage is up, the total number of cars sold is still pretty small — in the case of the Kizashi, about 5,400 cars through October (vs. 3,957 last year).
Honda numbers, they ain’t.
But — it is a start.
And if Suzuki’s car management team takes a cue from Suzuki’s bike management team and upgrades the Kizashi in the one area — power/performance — where it’s still a little so-so, things might really take off.
WHAT IT IS
The Kizashi sedan is what’s called a “category buster” in the car business. Suzuki made it larger inside and outside than the typical compact sedan — though it’s not quite as large as a current mid-sized sedan. It’s also nicer (more standard features and equipment) than other cars in its price range — and it offers features (including all-wheel-drive) that no one else in its price range or class even puts on the table.
Starting MSRP is $18,999 for the base S model with front-wheel-drive and six-speed manual transmission. A top-of-the-line Sport SLS with driver-selectable all-wheel-drive, Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic and navigation carries a sticker price of $28,948.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
Other than trim shuffling the 2012 Kizashi carries over largely the same.
So far, there’s no definitive word as to whether Suzuki will up the underhood ante by putting a turbo (or V-6) on the menu — though such a possibility was hinted at earlier this year when Suzuki trotted out a turbo’d Apex show car version of the Kizashi.
Here’s to hoping… .
Good-looking, solid feeling, fun to drive car that also costs less — and comes with more standard equipment — than other cars in this class/price range, including push button start, projector beam headlights, eight air bags, dual-zone climate control AC and a high-end stereo with USB port and nine speakers.
Optional AWD system — not generally available in this class/price range. It’s also driver-controllable and can be turned off or on, as needed — an unusual (and potentially fuel and wear and-tear saving) feature.
Sporty six-speed manual transmission.
Reassuringly long-lived 7-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty coverage.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Power-performance deficit. 185 hp, max — in a class where 200 hp is the new benchmark — and 250-plus hp is becoming routine.
CVT equipped models lose 5 horsepower (180 vs. 185).
Mediocre gas mileage.
Not so long-lived 3-year/36,000 mile basic warranty.
UNDER THE HOOD
The ’12 Kizashi (still) comes standard with a 2.4 liter, 185 hp four-cylinder engine (180, if you go with the optional CVT automatic), the same engine it came with last year. There is no optional engine — at least, not at the time of this review in late 2011.
A six-speed manual is the standard transmission.
The Kizashi can be ordered with Suzuki’s unusual i-AWD system. It’s unusual not because it’s AWD but because it’s a part-time system that’s driver-controlled instead of automatic: The vehicle can be toggled from FWD to AWD by pushing a button on the dashboard.
The ability to turn the AWD off should save some wear and tear over the life of the car — and could give a slight mileage boost when the AWD is turned off due to less driveline resistance.
Virtually all the other AWD-equipped cars on the market are full-time or automatic — meaning the system is always on and the driver has no control over its operation.
Acceleration-wise, the Kizashi (with six-speed manual and FWD) takes about 8.2-8.3 seconds to reach 60 mph — par for the segment. But the heavier AWD-equipped models with the CVT automatic take about 9 seconds — on the slow side relative to the competition, which includes models like the Hyundai Sonata and its cousin, the Kia Optima. With their optional turbo engines (274 hp) those two can get to 60 MPH in about 6.6 seconds.
Those cars don’t offer AWD, but they do offer much higher performance in a straight line.
Fuel economy is another Kizashi weakness: 23 city, 30 highway for the FWD/CVT version.
For some comparison: The standard (200 hp) Sonata pulls 24 city and 35 highway — and when equipped with its optional turbo engine — which is nearly 100 hp stronger than the Kizashi’s standard (and only) engine — still gives you 22 city and 34 highway, four MPG better on top than the Zuke.
ON THE ROAD
The Kizashi’s wow factor — high initially, when you read the impressive roster of standard features for the price — and when you first see the car in person — is really let down when you get behind the wheel and take the full measure of its take-it-or-leave it four-cylinder engine, experience the Emo acceleration and notice the not-so-great gas mileage, especially AWD-equipped/automatic versions.
Though it’s adequately powerful for everyday poking along, the 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine doesn’t match the rest of the Kizashi’s resume — nor its curb weight of 3,241 lbs.
Or, frankly, the latest competition — especially the super-appealing Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, which are both priced close enough to make the comparison painful. A turbo Sonata, for example, stickers for $24,645 — only about $1,600 more than a Kizashi Sport with almost 100 fewer hp that gets significantly less MPGs, too. And a top-of-the-line Kizashi is pushing $29k, significantly more than the turbo Sonata.
It makes me sad — because otherwise, this car is really good. It deserves better. It’s like having a ‘Busa — but without the killer engine… .
You look at this car — with its hunky dual exhaust cutouts, its angry-looking face with those piercing projector beam headlights … and you expect the car to be a runner.
Then you find out that 180-185 hp (and an 8-9 second 0-60 time) is as good as it gets.
The Zook is completely outclassed.
It doesn’t help that the Kizashi’s only available automatic is a CVT. These transmissions are more efficient than conventional automatics because they keep the engine in exactly the optimum point in its powerband at any given road speed — but they don’t perform as well as conventional automatics.
Initial, off-the-line acceleration in particular is noticeably more sluggish because a CVT doesn’t have a torque converter as in a conventional automatic. The torque converter helps off-the-line performance by letting the engine build RPMs (and thus get into its powerband) more quickly when you floor the gas pedal.
The CVT is also noisier than a standard automatic.
When you floor it to accelerate quickly, the engine spools up to near its redline at 6,000-plus RPMs and pretty much stays there until you back off the gas. This make a lot of racket — and gives the impression that the engine is straining — which of course it is, because the Kizashi’s just too heavy for 185 hp to cope with comfortably when the need for muey rapido acceleration arises.
The six-speed manual transmission is a better choice — both in terms of performance and also in terms of less drivetrain noise.
I asked the Suzuki people whether anything like the Apex show car that was on display at the New York Auto Show back in April might make its way into the lineup.
That thing was right and tight — a ‘Busa on four wheels with 300 hp. But even they split the difference — and give the production Kizashi a 250 hp option — it’d be (as Paris Hilton might say) huge.
Problem solved. Suddenly, the Kizashi is a serious menace to the Sonata, Optima, Ford Fusion and other sporty medium-sized sedans.
Again, here’s to hoping.
On the upside, though it’s not quick, the Kizashi does handle/respond like a sport sedan, and does it without being too stiff or bouncy when you’re just motoring along. Sport-equipped versions come standard with 18-inch spoked wheels and performance tires and also sit about 10 mm lower to the ground than other Kizashis.
The Kizashi’s i-AWD system is another plus. The Sonata doesn’t offer it at all and the Zook’s is the only one I’m aware of that is driver-selectable, too. You can run in FWD or depress the switch to the left of the steering wheel to engage the AWD.
This is smart. Why run AWD all the time when AWD is really only needed when it’s wet or snowy out — or you’re really moving? Switch it on when you need it — and leave it off (and save fuel and wear and tear) the other 90 percent of the time.
All that’s missing is another 40 or 50 horsepower… .
AT THE CURB
The Kizashi’s exterior appearance is sleek and expensive-looking. Check out the Lexus-like trapezoidal chromed exhaust cut-outs and the projector beam headlights already mentioned. There’s soft-glow ambient LED lighting — and even the glovebox is felt-lined.
Bluetooth wireless and a thumping 450 watt Rockfod Fosgate premium audio system can be ordered, along with rear park assist and back-up camera (bundled with GPS), rain-sensing wipers, sunroof and French-stitched leather seats (Sport package) with three-stage bun warmers.
It’s as though Suzuki skipped a generation — or even three. This car is so much better, so much more refined than previous Suzukis it’s literally hard to believe.
The Kizashi is physically more compact than cars like the Sonata and Fusion — about 7 inches shorter overall. (It’s also about 5 inches shorter than a VW Passat.)
This gives it a sportier look, although it means the back seats are a bit more cramped than in “standard” mid-sized models. Also, the trunk is smaller (13.3 cubic feet vs. 16.4 for the Sonata and 16.5 for the Fusion). But if you don’t have a large family to cart around, this may not be an issue for you — and may even be a plus since the Kizashi will be easier to park in tight spots and will leave more space in your garage.
The On/Off all-wheel-drive is a neat feature and so is the fact is that most cars in this segment don’t offer AWD at all.
And those that do — such as the Ford Fusion — charge a lot more for it.
You can get a Kizashi with AWD for about $22k. A Ford Fusion SEL with AWD starts at $25,300.
Neither the Sonata nor the Altima nor the Accord even offer AWD.
Suzuki’s cars — so far — haven’t scored as well as the name brand Japanese (or Korean — or American) brands on customer satisfaction surveys for quality, reliability and so on. The Kizashi I test drove certainly appeared to be solid and well put-together — and it’s certainly possible it’ll prove to be just as durable and well-made as other cars in this segment.
But it’s also a leap of faith, because it’ll take at least 3-5 years of actual on-the-road experience to know how well-built (or not) this car really is.
The good news is the Kizashi’s drivetrain (engine and transmission) are covered by a seven year/100,000 mile warranty.
The bad news is the basic warranty is just three years/36,000 miles — much shorter-lived than the warranty coverage offered by Hyundai and Kia.
Given how high Suzuki is reaching with the Kizashi — and how tough the competition is — and given perfectly understandable buyer reservations about taking a chance on a Suzuki vs. established safe bets like the Hyundai Sonata or even the Ford Fusion (which has proved itself to be an excellent car) Suzuki probably ought to have upped the basic warranty coverage to at least five years/60,000 miles — the same as current Hyundais and Kias.
It’s what I would have done if the call had been up to me.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All this car really needs to be a standout — and maybe clear some real numbers for Suzuki — is another 20 horsepower or so from the standard engine — and maybe 50 more from a not-yet-available (but here’s to hoping) optional unit.
Still, the thing’s a deal — especially AWD-equipped versions.
You won’t find anything equivalent for the money.
And that may be enough.