Suzuki's first attempt at a mid-sized car, the Kizashi, couldn't have been much braver. The Japanese company chucked itself into a market that -- in Australia at least -- is becoming more and more competitive.
The standard Kizashi is an intriguing prospect, partly because hardly anyone buys them and there doesn't seem to be a good reason for that, apart from badge snobbery. The Kizashi Sport is even more intriguing, given Suzuki's sporting heritage in strange pursuits such as the annual and treacherous Pike's Peak hillclimb in the US.
The Suzuki Kizashi range starts at $27,990 for the Touring and reaches the $39,990 Sport AWD via the $34,990 Prestige. Suzuki's first ever mid-size car, the Kizashi is a distinctive-looking machine, even with competition from the svelte Mazda6 and technocratic-looking Honda Accord. And it's far better-looking than the Subaru Liberty.
It gets a chunky, hunkered down look with lowered suspension and a set of handsome 18-inch alloys. The Sport is also distinguishable by deeper front and rear bumpers, a subtle bootlid spoiler and chrome accents. The Sport is based on the Prestige - both have electric seats, leather interior, sunroof, automatic HID headlights, fog lamps, rain sensing wipers, front and rear parking sensors, bluetooth and USB connectivity and seven speakers for the stereo.
As with all Kizashis, the steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach, has cruise control, keyless entry and start, dual zone climate control and trip computer. The interior is particularly well-executed and includes generously upholstered leather inserts on the doors and silver stitching unique to this trim level, with perforated panels on the squab and back.
The leather seats are soft but slippy and, unfortunately, the front seats are hard and too flat. As this one was fresh from the factory, the leather probably had some stretching to do, but there's not enough support. Front and rear parking sensors are backed up by an in-dash radar display as well as a reversing camera that uses the sat-nav screen. The 6.1-inch screen isn't quite bright enough and looks like an aftermarket unit. It makes up for it by being easy to use and, in contrast to other Suzuki Bluetooth units, is easy to set up.
The Kizashi faces serious competition, both direct and indirect. Mazda's new 6 has just arrived, with a very pretty new body. The bottom-of-the-range Sport kicks off at $33,460 and already runs the Kizashi close on equipment. The logical rival in the 6 range is the Touring at $37,500. The 6 has a few more kilowatts and another 20Nm of torque and also carries less weight and uses less fuel. There is no AWD option but there is a diesel engine available.
The Subaru Liberty 2.5i trumps the 6 and matches the Kizashi's AWD and CVT at $34,990. It's down on power but is a more relaxed engine than the Suzuki's. The Liberty isn't nearly as well equipped (you'll need to go to the $42,990 Premium) and on the styling front is a bit gawky. It's less fun to drive, too, but has Subaru's bulletproof reputation to fall back on, as well as a price closer to the Kizashi Prestige.
Other players in this size and price bracket include the Volkswagen Jetta and the Hyundai i45. Neither are particularly sporty and in the VW's case, a bit on the small side.
The 2.4-litre VVT four-cylinder engine, shared with the rest of the range, develops 131kW at 6500rpm and brings along 230Nm for the ride. The Kizashi's transmission, a continuously variable unit with a six-speeds for sport mode, valiantly makes the most of the power and torque. Paddles on the steering wheel control the "gears" in the CVT.
An evolution of the SX4's, the Sport's AWD system is activated with a dash-mounted switch. When in AWD mode, torque is sent to the rear wheels in response to the stability control system's sensors, as well as information from the steering and engine. Up to half the engine's torque can be sent rearward. Suspension on the Sport is 10mm lower and rides a set of 10 spoke 18-inch alloys wrapped in 235/45 Yokohamas.
For a first effort, the Kizashi is a fine-looking car. The wheels are pushed right out to the corners, escaping the long front overhang of many all-wheel drive sedans. While a little tubby from some angles, the overall design is coherent and consistent. The Sport adds chrome trim that works in some places -- but the silver blades on the door look chintzy and wobble. The bright red of our test car magnified the chrome's blinginess.
The interior is well put together and is better than most Suzuki interiors by a good margin. There's a lot of space inside, with good leg and shoulder room in the front and good room for two in the back, but centre rear footroom is compromised by a pronounced transmission tunnel. Even with a sunroof, there's enough headroom up front if you're under 190cm, but you'll want to be shorter in the back.
The plastics all fit well and barring a couple of colour mismatches, look and feel good. However, if you knock on the dash top, someone three houses down will come to their front door. They're that hard. The boot is a commodious 480 litres and can be enlarged by dropping the 60/40 split rear seats.
The Kizashi scored five stars in ANCAP testing. The whole range has ABS, front, side and curtain airbags and a knee bag for the driver. Stability and traction control are standard, as is brake force distribution and emergency brake assist and adds AWD. The Sport is also equipped with a reversing camera, useful from a safety perspective - the very high boot deck obscures the rear view.
With all that weight and a distinct lack of power, the Kizashi Sport is more a touring sedan than sports sedan. The lack of torque means the engine and transmission work together to keep the engine spinning in its upper reaches. As brave as it is, this little red engine was never going to set records.
The steering is slightly under-geared, meaning you have to turn the wheel a bit more than is ideal when bombing around the suburbs or flying through the bends. Despite the adjustable wheel, the driving position is hard to get right. The pedals seem a bit too close, bringing to mind Alfa Romeo driving positions from the late 70s. It's not quite that bad, but the short leg/long arm feel is unmistakeable.
Suzuki claims a 0-100km/h time of 8.8 seconds, but that seems a little ambitious from behind the wheel and is a second slower than the manual Touring. The 70kg weight impost of the AWD system is partially to blame. The upside is that the Kizashi rides comfortably and is hushed when you're moving, except for a bit of tyre noise at speed. The handling is confident and on a stretch of good back road with all-wheel drive switched on, it's a lot of safe fun. It's not exciting, but it's satisfying.
The CVT gearbox is impeccably-mannered, and at times feels like a traditional torque converter, with smooth uptake under acceleration. When pushing on, it's best to use the paddles as the CVT doesn't do engine braking and if you're not careful, your speed can get away from you. The plastic paddles, however, are a bit nasty and you need long fingers to easily reach them.
On balance, the car is fine in two-wheel drive on everything but wet or loose surfaces – where it needs the AWD system to be sure-footed. But being able to switch it off means you can save a bit of fuel, which is important because we found it impossible to match the Kizashi's claimed 8.4l/100km - we got closer to 12l/100km.
The Kizashi Sport doesn't make an enormous amount of sense unless you are going to appreciate the benefits of slightly better handling and the security of AWD. A lack of manual transmission is also a strange omission. Setting all of that aside, if you forget that it's not really a sporty sedan but a convenient monicker for the top-of-the-range, the Sport does make sense. It's got plenty of gear, is well-built and even stands up well to its moneybags Japanese competition from Mazda, Honda and Subaru.
When you remember that Suzuki as a company is much smaller than most of its competition and doesn't have the benefit of a huge global partner to supply it with parts and knowledge, the Kizashi looks even better. While $39,990 might seem a stretch, the Sport is well-equipped, looks great in the right colour and is as much fun as you can have in the segment before a $60,000 price tag with a German accent. And on top of that, you're supporting the underdog.
Suzuki Kizashi Sport
Price: from $39,990
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Safety rating: 5 star ANCAP
Engine: 2.4-litre 4-cyl, 131kW/230Nm
Transmission: CVT; AWD
Thirst: 8.4L/100km, 198g/km CO2
Dimensions: 2.7m (L), 1.8m (W), 1.5m (H)