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Suzuki’s Largest Midsize Sedan Uses Styling and Sportiness to Stand Out

BY MARK MAYNARD

Every few years American Suzuki makes a run at the midsize sedan segment.

In the mid-1990s it was the Esteem, which tried hard but trembled at the competition. And in 2004, there was the Verona, a lightly reworked Daewoo model (from South Korea), which was pushed on its dealers from Suzuki’s partnership with General Motors. Verona dried on the vine, and GM and Suzuki are now divorced.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, but Suzuki knows how to build a good, efficient car and its new attempt at a larger sedan, the 2010 Kizashi, shows much potential, though it has taken some blows from auto writers.

Built and developed by Suzuki, the company has never before built a car this big or with this many appointments. And it did something right in the engineering: Kizashi earned top, five-star crash-test ratings in frontal and side-impact tests for all seating positions in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s New Car Assessment program. Standard safety features include eight air bags and electronic stability and traction controls.

“Kee-Zah-shee” translates loosely to “fore taste” or “something great is coming,” according to a company spokesman. The new model is a compact midsize in a segment of sedans that have gotten larger and larger. Never mind that these sedans — including the Nissan Altima, Mazda6 and VW Passat — were once the size of Kizashi. The Acura TSX and certified preowned luxury sedans, such as the Audi A4 and BMW 3-series, are also among the competition.

Suzuki has positioned Kizashi as a sporty sedan, not a traditional family car. The company spent a lot of money under the car — chassis and suspension development. Its four-wheel disc brakes are sourced from Akebono, a Japanese bullet-train supplier, and all models use KYB performance-tuned shock absorbers. Rear styling is accented by dual exhaust tips exiting through the fascia, a sophisticated treatment also used by Lexus.

Standard features include push-button starting, backlit gauges, dual-zone climate control and a nine-speaker audio system. Options include stitched leather upholstery and a navigation system with traffic rerouting and rearview camera.

Sold in S, SE, GTS and SLS trim levels in front- or all-wheel drive with one four-cylinder engine and manual or automatic transmissions, pricing starts at $19,734 and ranges to $27,484 for the top-line SLS with continuously variable automatic and all-wheel drive.

The SLS comes with leather-trimmed seats with a four-way power passenger seat, three-stage heated seats and outside mirrors, automatic headlights and windshield wipers, rear park sensors and integrated garage-gate opener.

Another criticism of Kizashi has been its debut with just a four-cylinder engine when the competition also has a V-6 upgrade. I have tested a Kizashi with a big GM V-6, but that resource is now unlikely. A more powerful engine option will be offered, a spokesman said, but it has not been decided if it will be a turbocharged four cylinder, V-6 or a turbo diesel, all of which are among the considerations.

With a curb weight of just about 3,200 pounds, the manual test car was lively to drive. The six-speed manual is very forgiving with well-spaced gear ratios to make the most of the 185-horsepower. The gearbox and clutch are so smooth and easy that beginners should be able to master the process in a fun day of driving.

Fuel economy ratings are 20 city and 29 highway on 87 octane. The CVT AWD model is rated 22/29 mpg, and some models get up to 23/31 mpg. A couple more gallons to the 16.3-gallon tank would make this an enviable commuter car.

Kizashi may be compact for a midsize, but its design architecture allows a generous, 39.3 inches of headroom, without the moon roof. The cabin is well soundproofed and the materials and trim elements give the impression of an upscale, sport sedan. The headliner is of woven fabric and sun visors have covered and lighted vanity mirrors with extenders.

The front seat height is comfortable for entry and exit. Controls are ergonomic and placed to avoid confusion. The steering wheel has glove-soft leather, and there are useful storage areas throughout, including a locking glove box and dual-level center armrest.

The raised back seat has a wide, pull-down center armrest with cup holders. The center position is kid-class, but with a head restraint. And all models have a split seatback and pass-through. The 13.3-cubic foot trunk is a little larger than that in the Acura TSX.

There are also some visible growing pains. Attractive metallic trim and soft-touch materials appear to be of better quality than some of the plastic in which they are applied. And the simple, rubber clutch-brake pedal covers look to be from a $10,000 car. After a few days of driving, however, the good outweighs the plastic.

Whether brand-conscious U.S. consumers will understand a smaller-midsize, near-luxury Suzuki sport sedan is yet to be decided. But Kizashi will appeal to those who already know Suzuki and are happy with the dealer experience.

SPECS BOX

2010 Suzuki Kizashi GTS

Body style: midsize, five-passenger, front- or all-wheel-drive sedan

Engine: aluminum, DOHC, 185-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 170 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm

Transmission: six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic

Acceleration, 0-60 mph: 7.4 seconds manual; 8.3 CVT

EPA fuel economy estimates: 20 mpg city, 29 highway; 87 octane recommended

Trunk space: 13.3 cubic feet

Front head/leg/shoulder room: 39.3/41.7/55.5 inches

Length/wheelbase: 183.1/106.3 inches

Curb weight: 3,241 pounds (3,329 CVT)

FEATURES

Standard GTS equipment includes: Moon roof, fog lights, 10-way power adjustable driver seat with lumbar and memory presets, 10-speaker Rockford Audio with Bluetooth, 18-inch wheels with performance tires

Safety features include: eight air bags, stability and traction controls, four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS

PRICING

Base: $23,234, including $735 freight charge; price as tested, $23,614

Options on test car: premium floor mat set, $125; premium metallic paint, $130; body side molding accents, $125

Where assembled: Sagara, Japan

(set image) may021610-vis.jpg (end image) (set caption) Suzuki has positioned its new Kizashi as a sporty sedan, not a traditional family car. (end caption)

Mark Maynard is driving in cyberspace at Mark.Maynard@uniontrib.com.

COPYRIGHT 2010 THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE.

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