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2012 Suzuki Kizashi GTS AWD: Surprising fun from a scrappy underdog

Don't let the funny name put you off
by: Marty Bontempo Sporty looks, good road manners and a reasonable price add up to a well-balanced, affordable driving machine.

Which Asian car company is winning praise for its increased quality, innovative designs, advanced styling and affordable prices?

If you said Hyundai or Kia, you're right. Both South Korean manufacturers are now building impressive, reasonably-priced cars and crossover utility vehicles.

But so is Suzuki. Although hampered by a limited product line and dealership network, the small Japanese manufacturer nevertheless has two affordable cars and a crossover worth considering.

The first car to recently attract attention was the SX4, a sharply styled compact that is available with all-wheel-drive and a performance version called the SX4 Sportback. The AWD version is the least expensive AWD on the market, slightly undercutting the Subaru Impreza. The Sportback is surprisingly fun to drive for not much money, and should appeal to anyone interested in a Scion tC or Civic Si.

The Grand Vitara is the direct descendant of the Suzuki Sidekick, one of the first and best small crossovers. Nimble and economical, it was also sold by Chevy as the Tracker. Suzuki still sells the slightly larger Grand Vitara, and although it is not as sophisticated as most other small crossovers these days, it costs less and has higher ground clearance, making it more off-road worthy.

But the Suzuki that's really generating good reviews these days is the Kizashi, a smallish midsize sedan with good looks, a surprisingly large and upscale interior, and available on-demand AWD. First introduced last year, the Kizashi was immediately seen as a serious competitor in the affordable family sedan market. Suzuki restyled it slightly for 2102 and added a Sport GTS AWD version, the subject of this reviews. It proved to be comfortable and entertaining to drive. The AWD traction was also appreciated during a few heavy downpours.

All Kizashi's look aggressive, with a large air dam and bulging fenders that make them appear larger than they actually are. The Sport GTS version has an aero kit that includes a larger air dam, side body moldings and a trunk-mounted spoiler. It also has a sport-tuned suspension and a thick, leather wrapped steering wheel.

The interior styling is clean and contemporary, with better than expected materials and easy-to-use controls. A big plus are the comfortable and deeply contoured front bucket seats, which provide excellent support. Ours were cloth but leather is also available.

Unfortunately, the Kizashi only comes with one engine, a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder that offers 180 horsepower when mated to a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and 185 horsepower when equipped with the six-speed manual transmission. Some competitors offer V6 or turbocharged engines in similar cars. Chalk up the lack of options up to Suzuki's smaller size in the marketplace.

On the other hand, the 2.4-liter engine works reasonably well, revving freely and delivering spirited performance, even in our CVT-equipped model. The ride was also better than expected, smooth and supple over even rough pavement, and relatively flat through the corners.

Despite the sport-tuned suspension, we never mistook the Kizashi for a BMW. But it was still easy to drive smoothly above the posted speed limits, with the four-wheel-disc brakes keeping everything under control.

With prices starting at under $19,000 for the base two-wheel-drive model, the 2012 Kizashi is very competitively priced. The cheapest AWD version starts at a few thousand dollars more. Out test model cost a little over $26,000, which was still reasonable, given its features. Dealerships may be hard to find, but they are worth seeking out if you're considering a new Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima or any other midsize car these days.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2011 Kizashi.

• Manufacturer: Suzuki.

• Class: Midsize car.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door sedan.

• Engines: 2.4-liter (180 hp, 170 ft-lbs - as tested); 2.4-liter (185 hp, 170 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Six speed manual; six-speed Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) with manual shift mode and steering wheel-mounted shifters - as tested.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 21/31; 22/29 (as tested).

• Prices: Starting around $19,000 ($26,500 as tested).