Thumbs Up: The best car you’ve probably never heard of.
Thumbs Down: Heavy flywheel, long shifter throws.
Buy This Car If: You’re looking for a genuine bargain in a sporty midsize sedan.
What a difference a year makes: last July I drove and reviewed the 2010 Suzuki Kizashi GTS. Back then, I struggled to find things that I liked about the car, which felt like a Japanese version of the Volkswagen Jetta. I pondered why someone would buy a Kizashi, when for just a bit more money they could buy a Jetta. Nine months later, the roles have been reversed; VW’s new Jetta impresses on price alone, while the updated Kizashi impresses everywhere else. It’s a far better looking car than the new Jetta (which is subjective, I suppose), it feels and looks a lot nicer inside, and I’d be willing to bet that it’s quicker around a racetrack than non-GLI spec Jettas, too. In short, I’m now wondering why anyone would buy a Jetta when they can snap up a Kizashi for just a bit more money.
As for the styling of the 2011 Kizashi Sport, I love it. It doesn’t look like anything else on the market, and it’s one of the few press fleet cars that I often found myself staring at for no good reason. The car’s best angle is the side view, where you can see the steep rake of the windshield, the high beltline and the character line at the bottom of the doors, linking the subtle fender flares. From the rear, you notice the rounded trunklid and subtle lip spoiler, then your eyes wander down to the triangular exhaust outlets embedded in the rear fascia. Someone spent a lot of time on that detail, and it’s one of the styling elements that make the Kizashi stand out. Up front, the blacked out grille offsets the chrome Suzuki logo, and the front fascia is aggressively styled without looking comical. Even the 18” multi-spoke wheels just look right on the car, and the Kizashi is one of the few cars I can think of with true multi-generational appeal. Whether you’re 17 or 70, you won’t feel out of place behind the wheel.
Inside, it’s easy to forget that this car sells for under $30k. There’s an element of style carried off by the Kizashi that not many other manufacturers can match, ranging from the soft-touch stitched vinyl door panels to the multi-grain plastic dash and the contrasting stitching on the leather seats. Even the dash layout itself is a visually interesting blend of shapes, textures and colors. The brushed aluminum trim is really plastic, but who cares? it looks good and serves to break up the flow of the dashboard. I’d prefer a soft touch vinyl on the dash over the harder plastic used, but fit and finish is superb. My Kizashi Sport SLS tester didn’t come with Suzuki’s optional nav system, so controls for the automatic HVAC system and the Rockford Fosgate premium audio system were right where you’d expect them to be. Even the steering wheel was the right shape and size for spirited driving, with controls placed for easy reach while driving.
The instruments are semi-retro, featuring white numbers on a watch-like black background. You get an analog tachometer / temp gauge and an analog speedometer / fuel gauge, set in recessed, chrome-trimmed pods. There’s an LCD driver information display between the two, so trip information can be readily viewed.
The front seats are excellent, covered in surprisingly thick leather and deeply bolstered on top and bottom. The driver’s seat has an adjustable lumbar support and a three position memory, just in case drivers in the same family share the car. The driver’s seat is powered, but the passenger has to slide and tilt their seat the old fashioned way. Both seats are heated, something that buyers have come to expect across a multitude of price points.
The rear seat is relatively spacious, and three adults won’t pose a problem for short trips. Two adults work better, though, and those two get treated to supportive seats with a decent amount of head and leg room. Even the rear door panels are covered in a stitched vinyl, which adds a certain upscale element to the car.
All Kizashi models come with Suzuki’s 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, mated to either a six speed manual or a CVT with paddle shifters. Buyers opting for a manual transmission get 185 horsepower, while those checking off the CVT option box have to make due with just 180. Buyers also get to choose between front wheel drive and all wheel drive, which will definitely increase the Kizashi’s appeal to buyers who live in snow belt states. Despite Suzuki’s best attempts to convince you that the Kizashi is a sport sedan, the numbers just don’t back it up. Zero to sixty takes almost 8.5 seconds with the manual, and the CVT ups that to over nine seconds. That’s not sport sedan territory, and the long shifter throws won’t do much to make you a believer, either. Fuel economy is decent but not great, something I’d chalk up to the Kizashi’s engine, which uses neither variable valve timing nor direct injection. The EPA rates the Kizashi Sport SLS at 20 MPG city and 29 MPG highway, which is on par with the 24.3 mpg I saw in a mix of city and highway driving.
I don’t remember being impressed with the 2010 Kizashi’s steering or suspension, but that’s changed for 2011. The steering is now nicely weighted at all speeds, where last year’s model was a bit vague at speeds below forty miles per hour. Suzuki put some work into redesigning the suspension on 2011 Sport models, and it does indeed pay off in handling. Turn-in is quick, with a reasonable amount of grip from the tires and suspension. Like any front wheel drive sedan, understeer is the order of the day, but it comes on much later than you expect it to. Even in quick left to right transitions, the Kizashi just feels planted and the back end never felt light no matter how hard I pushed the car. It’s still not a sport sedan (per my comments above), but it is quite a bit sportier than a non-GLI Jetta or even Kia’s Optima sedan.
The engine and transmission do leave me scratching my head. Lift off the gas as you’re depressing the clutch, and the engine holds revs a lot longer than you expect it to. My first thought is that the Kizashi uses a heavy flywheel for improved balance and smoother shifts, but it could be related to fuel injection mapping as well. In any case, it’s not an entirely pleasant sensation for those of us used to rev-matching on downshifts, and it does nothing to help the car’s acceleration. My heavy-flywheel theory would also account for the car’s moderate acceleration and marginal fuel economy, and I’d welcome the chance to drive a Kizashi with a lightened flywheel. I suspect that would yield a quicker, more satisfying near-sport sedan.
As good as the Kizashi is, you rarely see one on the road. I’d chalk it up to a sparse dealer network and, perhaps, incorrectly targeted advertising. Suzuki has tried to pitch the car against competitors like the Audi A4, and that misses the mark entirely. Whether the Kizashi can beat an A4 in braking, or through a slalom course, is entirely irrelevant. Buyer’s shopping for an A4 aren’t going to stop by their local Suzuki dealer before putting cash down on the Audi, since one says ‘status” and one doesn’t. That’s not meant to take away from the Kizashi, because it is a very good sedan in its own right; if I were in charge of Suzuki’s marketing, I’d make sure that prospective buyers of VW Jettas, Kia Optimas, Hyundai Sonatas and ever Nissan Altimas test drove a Kizashi for comparison. My guess is that it would go a long way towards ramping up sales.
The sticker price on my 2011 Suzuki Kizashi Sport SLS was $25,304, including a $125 premium mat set, $130 premium metallic paint and $350 XM satellite radio, For comparison, a similarly equipped Kia Optima EX would sticker at $25,440 and a comparable VW Jetta SE would list for $23,758, but that’s not available with leather seating or a sunroof. If you’re in the market for either competitor, do yourself a favor and drive a Kizashi: I think you’ll be suitably impressed.