The dominant Japanese car companies remain uncomfortable with their nationality, doing their best to seem somehow American lest they provoke a political backlash. Even as unabashedly Japanese products have become prevalent in the intertwined worlds of TV, gaming, and toys, I cannot recall a car with so much as a Japanese name prior to Suzuki’s new Kizashi. Why Suzuki? Well, they’re too small in the U.S. to fear a backlash. And tagging a motorcycle Hayabusa didn’t exactly harm its popularity. Why “Kizashi?” The name means “something great is coming.” Well, is it?
With a name like “Kizashi,” one might expect Suzuki’s new sedan to look distinctively Japanese, or at least distinctive. It doesn’t. Some of the details are nicely done, such as the Lexus-like exhaust outlets. And the proportions are athletically tight. But if anyone noticed the Kizashi during the week I drove it and wondered “what is that?” they were very discreet about it. I suppose we should be thankful that the new corporate front end introduced with the XL7 went no further than the XL7. But anonymous soap bars are so mid-90s, and something about this car should say Suzuki aside from the oversized S on the grille.
The interior is no more Japanese than the exterior. But, for a car priced in the mid-20s, the Kizashi has an exceedingly well-appointed interior. Door pulls are the first thing you touch inside a car, and you grab them every time you get in. Yet these are rarely fully upholstered, even in premium brand luxury sedans. Well, the Kizashi has them, along with luxuriously upholstered upper door panels.
The premium look and feel continues with a woven headliner, switchgear that’s a cut or two above the mid-20s norm, compartment lids that open with a dampened glide, and thorough red backlighting. Everything that could possibly be backlit is backlit, down to the hood release and shift paddles. In the midst of this refinement, the long clunky rod used to adjust the instrument panel’s brightness and the slop with which the glove compartment latches stick out more than they otherwise would. A third oversight, and easily the most annoying: while the brightness of the instruments can be adjusted, the bright green lights that announce that the cruise and AWD are engaged cannot be. I avoided using both on the highway to avoid the green lights.
Suzuki similarly aims to impress with the Kizashi’s features list, and generally succeeds. Especially nice to see at this price: an immersive 425-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system, keyless access and ignition (will anyone who owns a car with it ever go back?), rain-sensing wipers (can’t get them on a Cadillac this year), and rear air vents. Some bits missed in their absence: 8-way instead of 4-way adjustment for the power passenger seat (a common omission at this price) and rear reading lamps. Yes, my well-ventilated kids complained when they could not read at night.
Suzuki is pitching the Kizashi as a driver’s car. The firm front buckets fit the bill, with side bolsters that (for once) actually provide even better lateral support than their appearance suggests they will. The driving position needs work—I had to telescope the wheel all the way out to comfortably reach it, and tilt it a little higher to avoid obstructing the instruments. Size-wise, the Kizashi falls between a compact and a midsize. This translates to a rear seat that is just large enough for the average adult. Those six-feet and up will wish for a true midsize. Kids, on the other hand, will wish for a lower beltline as they’ll struggle to see out of the Kizashi.
About that driver’s car pitch—it’s not based on the engine. A 180-horsepower 2.4-liter four isn’t ever going to impress in a nearly 3,500-pound sedan. With the six-speed manual and front-wheel-drive it might serve fairly well. With the four-wheel-drive and the CVT it mandates, not even close. GM uses active noise cancellation to make a similarly-sized four sound refined in the new Equinox. The Kizashi needs some of that. As is, the 2.4 has the shakes at idle and sounds more like a diesel than VW’s latest TDI south of 4,000 rpm. Too bad it doesn’t also have the low-end pull of a diesel. Acceleration from zero to 20 is downright sluggish. At that point the engine hits its stride and pulls strongly (well, as strongly as it can) until the CVT decides to reel it in.
In normal around-town driving, the CVT often decides “mission accomplished” and quickly transitions from an athletic 4,000+ rpm to an engine-lugging 1,500—even though you’re still accelerating. Or at least trying to. I’m not sure there’s a four-cylinder alive that sounds and feels good under load at 1,500 rpm. This one certainly doesn’t. To prevent this, make frequent use of the shift paddles to hold the transmission in one of six predefined ratios.
The CVT clearly wants to maximize fuel economy. Well, in moderate suburban driving the trip computer reported 20.5. My 300-horsepower V8 Lexus with 110,000 miles approaches 20 on the same routes. On the highway the Kizashi struggled to crack 26 even with the 4WD turned off. Turning off 4WD didn’t seem to improve fuel economy to a noticeable degree, perhaps because the system’s extra mass and much of its extra drag are still along for the ride. Oh, yeah, the trip computer might be optimistic—manual measurement of one highway tank returned 24.6 vs. the 26.2 reported by the computer.
The driver’s car pitch is based on the Kizashi’s handling. The in-between size and low-profile 18s (on the two top trim levels) should pay dividends here. In casual driving the Kizashi does have the polished, well-dampened feel of a German sport sedan, if VW more than BMW. And yet, when the chips are down, the (almost) sporty steering and suspension both become vague, failing to provide a sense of precision when it’s needed most. Say, when driving one of the curvier sections of the Pennsylvania turnpike, where the Jersey barrier comes uncomfortably close to the side of the car. No I didn’t scrape it, but the Kizashi doesn’t inspire confidence the way the best sport sedans do. At speed the front end becomes a touch floaty, the steering cuts back on communication, and bumps do some of the steering. The ride similarly lacks that final bit of polish, failing to absorb the occasional impact and at times turning jittery, especially for those in the back seat. On the other hand, when the engine isn’t working too hard the interior is quiet.
Unlike the typical all-wheel-drive system, with the Kizashi’s you can lock the car in front-wheel-drive. So, technically speaking, it has a four-wheel-drive system. The only clear benefit: you can find out how much difference driving all four wheels makes. Obviously, there’s more traction on snow-covered roads with the system engaged, enabling the car to be driven more quickly through turns without tripping the traction control system. And you don’t want to trip it—once this system takes power away it’s slow to give it back. But with 4WD engaged the handling is actually less predictable and thus less safe, with a tendency to oversteer not otherwise present. The car’s tail-happiness is easily controlled and even entertaining, but not something for less experienced drivers who simply want to stay out of the ditch. In front-wheel-drive the rear wheels dutifully follow the front ones. On dry roads, 4WD is of limited use until Suzuki offers a more powerful engine. A turbo 2.4 could make a big difference.
Even after selling cars in the United States for a quarter century, Suzuki remains below the radar. If it wants to be a player here, it needs to offer a car so great that Americans must take notice. Unfortunately, while the Kizashi has definite strengths, most notably the upscale interior and premium feel in casual driving, it’s not that car. The styling is too anonymous, the engine lacks refinement, the CVT could learn a thing or two from Nissan, and the chassis needs another round of tuning. Above all, the Kizashi has far too little personality. There’s a lot to like, but not much to love. Suzuki has been bold with the car’s name. Why not with the car itself? Something great might be coming from Suzuki, but it hasn’t yet arrived.
Vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas provided by Suzuki
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, a source of pricing and reliability data