Suzuki Goes a Little Upscale

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Photo courtesy American Suzuki Motor Corp.

2010 Suzuki Kizashi.

While it’s fun to dream about high-priced exotic cars, what most people seek out when they head to the local auto mall is something practical. We all want the most for our money, especially when that money might be scarcer than it used to be.
Suzuki is now trying to appeal to value-conscious buyers with an attempt at an upscale sedan at a downscale price called the Kizashi. It’s about the size of a Volkswagen Jetta or Acura TSX, is well built, and even has a bit of panache in the styling department. On sale now at a Suzuki dealer (if you can find one – they still aren’t as numerous as most mainstream brands), the Kizashi hits a solid triple, though not a home run.
The history of Suzuki in the U.S. goes back decades, starting with motorcycles which came to full force in the 1970s along with other Japanese brands. In the 1980s, they began importing a cute little Jeep-like off road vehicle called the Samurai. It sold in relatively big numbers, but obviously only filled a small niche.
Over the years, the company has expanded its lineup to include compact SUVs and sedans, with an emphasis on value and economy. Their SX4, available as both a 5-door hatch and a 4-door sedan, has been a pretty good success and offers a lot of car for under $20,000.
With the Kizashi, Suzuki is busting through the $20,000 barrier in order to compete with what are known as “compact premium” sedans. The aforementioned Jetta and TSX, and even cars like Audi’s A4 get mentioned in Suzuki’s press materials for the car. Their thought is that they’ve created a car that offers all or most of the upscale feel and features of the others, but for thousands less.
Did they succeed? Well, sort of. First of all, the car is really handsome in person. It’s not easy to make your basic 4-door sedan look interesting, but the Kizashi is pretty sharp. Especially nice is the rear treatment, something that’s often overlooked in car design. The interior is rather stylish too, with upscale touches like instruments with a rich font on them.
And the interior is really what will sell people on this car. There are great textures to pretty much every surface, from the dashboard to the door panels. Nicely grained vinyl with a soft touch feel; much better than the smooth hard plastic often found in lower-priced cars.
I got to test drive an SLS trim level Kizashi, the most upscale of the line. It’s got all the goodies that have become commonplace on upscale cars and are slowly making their way down to lower priced ones. Heated leather seats, dual zone automatic climate control, pushbutton start, Bluetooth connection for cell phones, steering wheel controls for that and for other functions, and so on and so forth.
Unfortunately, this car was also equipped with the standard 6-speed manual transmission instead of the optional CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic. While I understand the intent of Suzuki’s pr department of putting the best-performing drivetrain in the hands of automotive journalists, most people who pop for the most loaded-up version of the Kizashi will want the automatic, especially if they’re going to use the car for commuting.
If the performance of the manual-equipped Kizashi is any indication, the one with the automatic is going to feel a little pokey when pushed hard. While its 2.4 liter four cylinder engine makes 185 horsepower and is pretty smooth, it doesn’t have the low-end grunt of the V6 in the Acura TSX or the turbocharged four in the Jetta and Audi. Most people would probably think it’s fine, but accelerating into freeway traffic is going to strain this engine more times than not.
To be fair, the CVT may not be that bad, especially since Suzuki has given it a manual shift mode with one of those +/- gates on the shift lever or optional paddle shifters by the steering wheel. But I also noticed on the spec sheet that for whatever reason, the automatic model has 180 horsepower, five fewer than the engine in the manual version.
If you can live with the slight lack of power, this is a pretty nice car to spend time in every day. The seats are very comfortable, and it’s pretty quiet inside, especially given the price. The many amenities will also help keep you entertained and safe while out on the road.
There’s a base model Kizashi S that starts at $18,999 and actually has a lot of features included at that price. Another $2500 will buy the SE, and for $22,499 the next step up called the GTS is available. The top-of-the-line SLS starts out at $24,399, and the CVT version with all wheel drive pushes the price range to a maximum of $26,749. All wheel drive can also be added to the lesser models for an extra couple of thousand.
I’ve heard some social commentators say that extravagance is out and frugality is in, even if you aren’t negatively affected by the current recession. If that’s the case, the Suzuki Kizashi will let you drive in a somewhat extravagant manner on a frugal budget.
I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.

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