NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE—Suzuki's last crack at a mid-size sedan was an unmitigated disaster.
Except for rock-bottom pricing, the short-lived Verona (designed and built by General Motors' South Korean Daewoo subsidiary) had little to offer buyers.
In terms of quality, fuel efficiency or performance, the Suzuki (also sold as the Chevrolet Epica) brought up the rear in a crowded and competitive segment.
Against sales heavyweights like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima — understandably — Suzuki Canada only sold a handful of Veronas.
Heeding the "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" idiom, for the Verona's replacement, Suzuki decided to not take any chances. Its new 2011 Kizashi is 100 per cent Suzuki. Designed, engineered and built in Japan.
And as part of a five-year plan that wants to more than double current Canadian sales to 30,000 Suzukis a year, the Kizashi`s mission is also to send a message about where the automaker's brand is heading as a brand.
Better known for its motorcycles and ATVs, Suzuki is celebrating the 100th anniversary of it making cars. Not that anyone would know.
"If I asked 50 people on the street what `Suzuki' meant to them, they would probably say `motorbikes,' admitted Suzuki Canada president Seiichi Maruyama.
The Suzuki cars most Canadians may remember — Swifts, Samurais or Vitaras — are better known for being rugged, but cheap to own. Not exactly objects of desire.
But that's where cars like the recent SX4 (a fine driving, well-built, practical hatch, co-developed with Fiat) and the new Kizashi sports sedan come into play.
Did we write Suzuki and "sports sedan" in the same paragraph?
Yup. Not satisfied with just making cheap and cheerful products, going forward, the automaker wants to be known as a builder of "fun-to-drive" vehicles.
As such, Suzuki said the Kizashi was benchmarked against Alfa Romeos for handling, and Volkswagens for solidity, and delivers "Japanese quality with European flair."
If that sounds a lot like the modus operandi for the likes of premium Japanese brands like Acura, Infiniti or Lexus, you would not be wrong.
On sale early next year in Canada as a 2011 model, we recently drove U.S.-market pre-production Kizashis both on public roads and on the test track used for the Canadian Car of the Year event, at the Niagara Regional Airport.
Audi and BMW salespeople don't have anything to worry about yet. But initial impressions in the Kizashi should have some of the aforementioned mid-size sedan rivals concerned.
Like the recently launched Honda Accord Crosstour, Canadians will receive their Kizashis only one way: loaded.
Unlike in the United States — where front-wheel-drive, a six-speed manual and less standard equipment — are offered, Canadian Kizashis will come only with power everything, leather sports seats with three-stage heating and three-position memory, a 425-watt audio system, all-wheel-drive and a continuously variable transmission.
Pricing won't be announced until closer to its Spring 2010 on-sale date. But "under-$30,000" is what Suzuki Canada is hoping for.
The only other mid-size sedan that can match the Kizashi's AWD/CVT spec is a $31,995 Subaru Legacy 2.5i Limited.
In regards to exterior size, the Kizashi is a bit of an "in-betweener."
The sedan is shorter than some of the recently super-sized competition, and it's closer in length to a Volkswagen Jetta compact than a mid-size Passat.
Except for an impinging A-pillar and average front headroom, excellent interior packaging has resulted in a roomy cockpit for four, though there's a fifth seatbelt back there for an extra passenger. Especially generous is rear legroom.
Drivers are treated well. The leather seats are excellent: comfortable in shape and supportive in the corners. The centre console controls are covered in a soft rubber material with thin strips of chrome in places. VW/Audi fans will find the leather-wrapped steering wheel and the black plastic CVT paddle shifters familiar in execution. And like the SX4 compact, the Kizashi is well screwed together.
Powering Kizashis on both sides of the border will be a 2.4-litre four-cylinder. The choice of CVT chops 5 hp from the 185 hp the U.S. six-speeders get, but that's still more than in four-cylinder Altimas, Camrys or base Accords.
Like any CVT-equipped car, initial acceleration in the Kizashi can seem sluggish. But its relatively light 1,560 kg curb weight helps it scoot from zero to 100 km/h in just under eight seconds.
U.S. estimates have the Kizashi CVT rated at 10 L/100 km in the city (28 mpg) and 7.6 L/100 km on the highway (37 mpg).
Once underway, Suzuki's sports sedan claims are justified. Compared to the Accord, Mazda6, Legacy, Camry, and Altima that Suzuki brought to the track as well, the Kizashi was the most fun to drive.
An exceptionally stiff body, with reinforced front and multi-link rear suspensions, delivers nimble handling with excellent stability and minimal chassis vibration.
The Kizashi's AWD system can send up to 50 per cent of the engine's torque to the rear wheels, which helps the car change direction swiftly with limited understeer. And the steering had plenty of on-centre feel, if a bit slow.
The only downside is a highway ride than gets very busy. It's as if the large 18-inch rubber hadn't been tuned properly with the sporty suspension.
The Kizashi is a great first effort at establishing Suzuki's new brand mission.
If you're nostalgic for the smaller (i.e. more nimble), older versions of the Mada6, Accord or even Audi A4, though, the Kizashi's taut proportions and small car feel from behind the wheel — and its competitive pricing — make it a very appealing option.
We think a six-speed manual transmission and a direct-injected and turbocharged version of the 2.4 would move the Suzuki one rung up, and really put some heat on those BMW and Audi salespeople.
And maybe another Kizashi body configuration — like a coupe or a five-door hatchback — would help Suzuki with its ambitious sales goals.
For anyone who knew the old Daewoo/Suzuki sedan even existed in the first place, the latest Suzuki sedan will definitely make customers forget about the woeful Verona.
As a rival to some of the mainstream mid-size sedan stalwarts, though, the 2011 Suzuki Kizashi offers a unique and fun-to-drive proposition.Travel was provided to freelance auto reviewer John LeBlanc by the automaker. email@example.com
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