2010 Suzuki Kizashi SLS 6MT Review

By Chris Haak

It might be an understatement to say that Suzuki is a company that is fighting for its survival in the US market right now. The brand, which had seen some degree of success in the US as recently as 2006, has been knocked down a few pegs in the race for American consumers’ hard-earned money. Much of the problem has been that Suzuki made the strategic decision to no longer rebadge cheap, but lower-quality Korean-built Daewoos and sell them to US consumers. Unfortunately, Suzuki didn’t really have a fallback product in place after the departure of the likes of the Forenza and Verona. With a smaller model lineup and small marketing budgets, it’s difficult to get traction in the difficult US market. To address this hole in its lineup, Suzuki spent over $1 billion USD (according to its advertisements) to develop the Kizashi, its new small midsize sedan.

The Kizashi’s development took a number of public detours. Suzuki showed three Kizashi concepts that more or less set the tone for the production car’s final shape (significantly toned down, of course). However, the concepts teased powertrain options that didn’t make it to the final car. The first one featured a four cylinder turbodiesel, and the second and third had GM-sourced 3.6 liter V6s and six-speed automatics. When production realities hit, the car is available only with a 2.4 liter four cylinder gasoline engine and either a CVT or a six-speed manual transaxle.

Aside from my slight disappointment that there’s no V6 – or torque converter automatic – in the cards for the Kizashi, my disappointments about this car are really fairly trivial. After all, I’m told that Kizashi means “something great is coming” in Japanese. When I told friends that I was driving a Suzuki Kizashi for a week, not one of them had ever heard of the car, and all thought it was a stupid name. That in and of itself was interesting, because I had some familiarity with the name thanks to the three concept cars, but hearing a car’s Japanese name for the first time is somewhat unusual and foreign, I’d imagine. It’s interesting that Honda, and especially Toyota, make every effort to immerse themselves in US culture (with English or American names like Tundra, Sequoia, Accord, and Civic), while Suzuki basically says, “screw it,” embraces its inner Nippon, and throws a car on the market with a Japanese name and a J for its first VIN digit (meaning it’s built in Japan and is not a transplant).

The Kizashi is an attractive car, with organic, flowing shapes inside and out. The grille dips into the bumper in a late-model VW-like sort of way (though VW has abandoned the horse-collar grille look in its newest vehicles), and there are gentle curves throughout the car’s body. The wheel openings are nicely contoured, and there are few straight lines in the car, aside from the base of the door windows; even the cutlines for the trunk and bumper are organically-shaped, as are the taillights and the trunklid itself. The greenhouse shape is somewhat conventional – which reminds me of a Ford Fusion’s – but the overall look brings to mind such adjectives as modern, clean, and handsome. The Kizashi won’t likely be mistaken for a luxury car based on outward appearances, but the Lexus LS460-like chrome exhaust cutouts in the bumper and large, 18 inch multi-spoke wheels do add some flair to the design.

Perhaps what’s most noticeable about the Kizashi is its relatively svelte size. Like it bucked the trend by embracing its Asian-ness, it also bucks the trend among other midsize sedan entrants to grow to near (or actual) full size dimensions. The Kizashi is 11 inches shorter than an Accord sedan and rides on a 3.9 inch shorter wheelbase. Unsurprisingly, both interior and trunk volume suffer because of these shorter measurements. Front headroom is about three inches shorter in the Suzuki, and an inch and a half shorter in the back seat. Legroom is about an inch shorter in the Suzuki’s front seats and about an inch and a half shorter in the back seats. The Kizashi’s width-centric measures are where it really takes a beating from the Accord. Front row hip room is 3 1/2 inches narrower in the Kizashi, and rear seat hip room is 2.2 inches more dear in the Suzuki. Shoulder room in the Suzuki suffers by a similar margin.

The upside of the Suzuki’s trimmer proportions is that it’s a lighter car. That brings a whole host of benefits such as better handling, better fuel economy, better acceleration, and better braking. Quantitatively, the Kizashi that I tested has a curb weight of 3,241 pounds, which happens to be the most-svelte variant of the Kizashi (six-speed manual with front wheel drive) and is the one I’d choose if I were inclined to buy one. By comparison, the larger Accord weighs in at 3,397 pounds when comparably equipped.

Perhaps a better size-and-price competitor, however, is the Volkswagen Jetta. The Jetta weighs almost the same as the FWD Kizashi, and although the Kizashi rides on a five inch longer wheelbase and is four inches longer than the Jetta, their interiors are very close in size. The Jetta does have a smaller interior, but the size difference is generally no more than an inch and a half in any direction. The Jetta does, however, have a larger trunk than the Kizashi (16 cubic feet versus 13.3 cubic feet).

Inside the Kizashi, there’s a really nice feature set. My test vehicle included leather seats (with softer-than-expected leather), a leather wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth phone and streaming audio, a 10-speaker Rockford Fosgate stereo, rain sensing wipers, backup sensors, 10-way power driver seat, Homelink, trip computer, power heated exterior mirrors, split-folding rear seat with center pass-through, and a power tilt and slide sunroof. Other features include 18 inch aluminum wheels, stability control, 8 airbags (which includes rear seat side mounted airbags), and pushbutton start with keyless entry.

A notable omission from the options list is any type of navigation system, which is curious, since the Suzuki SX4 has a standard Garmin unit. As it turns out, Suzuki plans to offer an in-dash Garmin unit in the Kizashi in the next few months, but my test vehicle did not have it. Aside from the temporary lack of a navigation system and a somewhat-snug interior relative to the class leaders, the Kizashi’s interior is, for the most part, impressive. The center stack’s design theme mimics the swoop present on the car’s grille, and is highlighted by real-looking fake aluminum trim on either side. The center stack itself has large, easy-to-use controls and is finished on a quality-feeling rubbery matte black finish. The A-pillar trim inside the car is fabric-covered the way Hondas used to be built until they went with just hard plastic there. The Kizashi does have hard plastic on the inside B-pillars, but at least you generally do not stare at or touch the B-pillars. The door panels are nicely finished with fake leather and soft-touch plastics in their upper portions, and had padded door pulls. Parts of the dash are soft-touch as well, but the entire top of the dash is a piece of pebble-grained hard plastic. Perhaps the texture was added to trick buyers into believing that it was not hard plastic, since I had to rap a knuckle against it to tell for sure.

All buttons and switches have a consistent, quality damped feel to their operation, as you’d encounter in a Honda. I’m a long-torsoed 6’4″, and was able to squeeze into the back seat behind the driver’s seat that had been adjusted as far forward as I dared, yet maintain the ability to comfortably drive a three-pedal car. As long as my knees were held in a V-shape around the edge of the front seat, my legs fit there. Unfortunately, my head was against the ceiling, in spite of a cutout to slightly increase headroom.

I always look forward to a manual transmission-equipped test vehicle because I enjoy the control and engagement of having to be intimately aware of what gear I’m in and what gear I need to be in at that moment. The Kizashi’s clutch action was just about perfect, at least to my liking. While the MazdaSpeed3’s clutch was a bit too heavy and had a very low engagement point and the Acura TL SH-AWD 6MT’s was too light, I was able to master the Kizashi’s clutch the second time I used it. I had such a comfort level with it that I didn’t give a second thought to any concerns about drifting backward when pulling out at an uphill traffic light or stop sign. Shift action also felt decent, as long as I wasn’t in a hurry. Rushing things tended to make the movement feel notchy. I did have a little trouble putting the car into reverse; I’d move the lever into the neighborhood, but must have not pushed it back into its gate quite far enough, and I’d know my error as soon as I began to release the clutch. My only criticism of the manual transmission is that the lever was very tall, with a large knob on top, and its shift action was almost humorously long, particularly from 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6.

Although a 3,200 pound car is somewhat light relative to its competitors, 185 horsepower does not generally get my enthusiast blood flowing. The six-speed manual, at least, does help with the car’s sporting character, and the car is not a slowpoke. Suzuki does not offer a conventional torque converter automatic transaxle in the Kizashi; for those cars not equipped with the manual, a CVT with shift paddles is offered. CVT-equipped Kizashis are also down 5 horsepower, to 180, which is just another reason to go with the three-pedal setup. Suzuki is marketing the Kizashi as a winter driving-friendly vehicle because all wheel drive is optional. An unusual feature of the Kizashi’s all wheel drive system is that it can be engaged or disengaged with a button on the dash. You still would have some friction losses and of course still have to lug around about 200 additional pounds when it’s not engaged, but the user-selectable all wheel drive is really more of a four wheel drive system. All wheel drive is available only on CVT-equipped Kizashis.

The Kizashi is equipped with electric power steering, and feedback suffers slightly as a result versus a traditional hydraulically-boosted system. But, as is true with many new cars equipped with EPS, these systems have improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years. I wouldn’t hesitate to drive a car with Kizashi-like steering every day. The brakes – four wheel discs – had nice feel during most situations, but following a bout of particularly-spirited driving when the brakes were no doubt hot, they felt as if the rotors had warped. However, the next morning, the “baam-baam-baam”-sound and accompanying pulsating sensation had again disappeared. The chassis felt very capable in most situations (it was tuned at the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife), and I’d love to see what it could do with more power. How about the V6 out of the Grand Vitara, or a turbo for the 2.4 liter four cylinder, Suzuki? I was at a media event a few years ago where one of the most popular cars on the racetrack was a tuner-touched turbo Suzuki SX4; clearly Suzuki is aware of the fun that a turbo can bring.

During the Kizashi’s time with me, I observed fuel economy of about 26 miles per gallon, which is in line with the car’s EPA estimates (though the EPA isn’t yet publishing fuel economy data on the Kizashi, Suzuki estimates it at 20 city/29 highway with the 6MT and 17/18 inch wheels). Interestingly, Suzuki expects that the same FWD/6MT combination would return 21/31 with the standard 16 inch wheels. Front wheel drive CVT-equipped Kizashis are projected to return 23/31 with 16 inchers and 23/30 with 17s/18s, and all-wheel drive Kizashis (of course, with CVTs) are projected to return 23/30 with 16s and 22/29 with 17s/18s. I’m curious as to whether the final ratings will differentiate based on wheel size, as I don’t recall seeing anything similar on other vehicles (though the higher weight of larger wheels would seem to make a difference potentially.) An Accord is rated at 22/31 and a Jetta at 22/30, so the Kizashi is right in the neighborhood.

All of this can be yours for the sum of $25,184 including destination. When comparing prices with the Accord, and adding the value of the Kizashi’s features notavailable on the Honda, the Kizashi comes out about $3,600 less expensive. The Jetta comes in at around $200 cheaper when comparably equipped, according to TrueDelta. Though my test vehicle was somewhat pricey thanks to all of the equipment included in its top-of-the-line SLS trim level, a base six-speed manual Kizashi starts at $19,734 including destination charges. The base Kizashi includes dual-zone automatic climate control, eight airbags, pushbutton ignition and keyless entry, a seven-speaker MP3/CD-equipped audio system, and stability control.

As I drove the Kizashi, I liked the little car. My wife felt that the car was too small, but as with many vehicles, we’re not in the right buyer demographic, and are both too tall to boot. That being said, I’m not convinced that a new Kizashi is the smartest purchase out there, only because Suzuki is still working to rebuild its brand image and its residual values are still on the upswing, according to Kelley Blue Book. Also, in spite of a price thousands cheaper than other entrants in the midsize sedan class, Suzuki may have trouble convincing people to give them a chance with loaded cars going for prices in the mid-$20,000s. My thoughts kept going back to the notion that this is the car that the Honda Accord used to be – capable, comfortable, efficient, excellent attention to detail, and not excessively large. Perhaps that’s a better compliment to pay to the Kizashi than to say it’s similar to the super-sized car that the current Accord has become. The Accord is an excellent car, but it’s not a midsize car anymore. Perhaps it’s time to push the rest button on our vehicle size expectations.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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