Twenty kilometres on the worst bitumen road I have driven in 20 years has won me on the Suzuki Kizashi. Until we hit the horror strip on the haul to Warwick in Queensland I am using words like cute, nice, safe, sensible and refined to describe the Kizashi. With a special mention for a $27,990 starting price.

As we emerge from the nastiness, and a road that would run an Audi A4 ragged, my Kizashi vocabulary has switched to composed, refined, impressive, enjoyable and - wait for it - brilliant. The turnaround happens as quickly as one evil, nasty corner that would turn most cars into a bucking bronco. The Kizashi crushes it and, even though the rear suspension bottoms heavily, there is no lasting damage of any sort.

Explore the 2010 Suzuki Kizashi Range

My passenger and I are both smiling, and things get better with every kilometre. This is a big surprise because Suzuki is moving into unknown and uncharted territory with the Kizashi, its first mid-sized car and one that must compete with the Honda Euro and Mazda6 and perhaps even the Audi A4.

Suzuki made its name with grotty little 660cc city runabouts. It produces them in vast numbers, even badging them for Mazda and Nissan. It began its move upmarket with the impressive Swift, a Carsguide Car of the Year winner, and continued with the latest Grand Vitara. The SX4 is alright, but not in the same class.

Now it has the Kizashi, a safe but smooth design with impressive quality in every area. And, as I discover on the track to Warwick, world-class steering, suspension and noise control. The car has been developed over more than four years and, despite losing some of the sensational styling of Kizashi concept cars, it is an impressive job. But it needs to be good because Kizashi is up against tough rivals and has no history or reputation to help it.

"Kizashi is a car we have all been looking forward since the Frankfurt Show in 2007. It is a car that is immensely important for Australia. We are confident it will re-define the Suzuki brand here in Australia," says Tak Hayasaki, managing director of Suzuki Australia. His crew has laid the ground for Kizashi with everything from the Swift to an $80 million upgrade of dealer facilities, even if the first-year sales forecast is a conservative 3000 cars.

DRIVETRAINS AND PRICING

The basics for the Kizashi are the medium-class body, a 2.4-litre four- cylinder engine, six speed manual and six-speed CVT automatic transmissions, and plenty of standard equipment. There are only two models, the XL and XLS. The XL is well equipped with keyless entry and start, six airbags, ESP and anti-skid brakes, 17-inch alloys and dual-zone aircon. The XLS picks up everything plus leather seats and sunroof.

Pricing is $27,990 and $30,490 for the XL or $34,990 and $37,990 for the XLS. "Only the entry-level Mazda6 Limited has a lower retail price. It's patently clear which vehicle has better value," says Tony Devers, general manager of Suzuki Australia.

DRIVING

The Kizashi is a good looking car and the quality is first-rate, but I wonder at first about the size. Looks are deceiving with such short overhangs, but the boot is good and there is Euro-sized space for four adults in the cabin. It's easy to find a comfy driving position but taller drivers - and ones not much over 180 centimetres - report restricted headroom in the XLS. Suzuki is investigating making the sunroof an option, not standard.

The car is quiet, the six-speed manual gearshift is slick, and the CVT does not produce the annoying engine roar of some rivals, while the car will obviously do good economy numbers. It undercuts the Mazda6 and Suzuki also touts regular unleaded.

The 2.4-litre engine is smooth but lacking any real mid-range punch, which is a shortcoming when you have a few people on board. But a V6, a future engine choice, would likely make the car heavy in the noise and upset the ride and handling. And that's where the Kizashi is a real winner, cashing-in the development work done at the Nurburgring.

The steering is sharp and responsive, the car is neutral at all speeds in all types of corners, and the way the suspension absorbs bumps is - that word again - nothing short of brilliant. When you look at the car's value, and the quality of the engineering, the only shortcoming is the Suzuki badge. It's not that a Suzuki is bad, just that no-one will expect a car like the Kizashi in the mid- sized ruck.

If the latest Honda Euro or Mazda6 were as capable as the Kizashi they would re-write the rules for mid-sized motoring; just as they did when they hit as the first Euro-Jap mid-sized contenders. How good is the Kizashi? I'm certain it will make the shortlist for the Carsguide Car of the Year award in 2010.