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2010 Suzuki Kizashi: Strong contender in the affordable sedan field

Another pleasant surprise from one of Japan's smallest manufacturers
by: ANNI TRACY, With the new Kazashi, Suzuki shows that it is serious about competing with the big boys.

The recent turmoil among large automotive manufactures offers a rare opportunity for smaller companies to break into the upper ranks.

Many potential buyers are understandably reluctant to buy from companies that have declared bankruptcy, even though both General Motors and Chrysler quickly put their most immediate financial problems behind them with government help. And Toyota has made some people nervous with its numerous safety recalls, although sales are beginning to rebound.

But these stumbles from the biggest companies are giving upstarts a chance to increase their market share. The most successful companies so far have been South Korean - Hyundai and its corporate sibling, Kia. Their newest models are selling well. They include the well-made Sonata sedan and the Genesis sedan and coupe from Hyundai. Kia is finding success with its boxy Soul and a pair of compacts, the Forte sedan and two-door Forte Koup.

But now Suzuki is nipping at all of their heels. Its newest model, the Kizashi, is a stylish, affordable sedan that comes in a broad range of trim levels, all of them well equipped. On the small end of the midsize category, it is even available with all-wheel-drive, a useful option that most of its direct competitors do not offer.

The Kizashi is Suzuki's second strong challenger in recent years. The first was the SX4, a compact sedan and five-door hatchback that is also available with all-wheel-drive. A new Sportback version offers lot of fun for relatively little money.

Suzuki has never had much presence in the American automotive market. Only two of its models ever attracted much of a following. One was the subcompact sold under a variety of names, including the Suzuki Swift, the Chevrolet Sprint and the Geo Metro. Most models featured three-cylinder engines that got over 40 miles per gallon, although a sporty turbocharged version was also offered. The other was the economical compact SUV that was also sold under a variety of names, including the Suzuki Sidekick and the Chevrolet Tracker.

Most Suzukis have remained below the radar screen, however, lacking both the style and quality of their Japanese competitors. But, like Hyundai and Kia, the company is now stepping up to the plate. And, with the Kizashi, it has hit a triple.

On the outside, the Kizashi is a thoroughly contemporary sedan with a large, aggressive grill, bulging fenders and a high trunk line that seems inspired by the BMW 7 Series. The inside is roomy and well laid out, with a wrap-around dash and chrome-trimmed center console dividing the front seats. The interior plastics have a quality look and feel to them, something that could not be said about many of the company's most recent offerings.

The Kizashi comes in four trim levels. All of them include such upscale touches as eight airbags, push-button start, dual-zone climate control, EPS stability control, ABS, projector beam headlights, power windows, doors and mirrors, and ambient footwell lighting.

At around $19,000, the least expensive model is the S, which comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission and nine-speaker stereo system. The next step up is the SE, which comes standard with a Continuously Variable Transmission, a performance-tuned suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, 10-way power driver's seat and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Next up is the GTS model, which adds a sport-tuned CVT with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters and a 10-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio system. And at around $25,000 is the comfort-oriented SLS model, which includes leather seats (including heated front ones), automatic rain sensing wipers, rear proximity sensors and much more.

All versions come with only one engine - a 2.4-liter inline four that pumped out 180 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque. All-wheel-drive is available on all of them, although it must be mated to CVT transmission.

Our test model was the SE version, which listed at $21,754, including option premium floor mats and paints. Although not the fastest version, it was surprising fun to drive, in large part because of the tuned sports suspension that includes KYB shock absorbers. The combination made the ride firm but not harsh, encouraging spirited driving on twisty roads.

The engine - among the most powerful in its class - pulled strongly off the line and during freeway passes. The four-wheel-disc brakes were also unexpectedly strong. Combined with the console-mounted brake lever, they suggest that Suzuki engineers expect the Kizashi to be pushed harder than most other affordable family cars.

USA Today recent rated the Kizashi high in a comparison of eight affordable family sedans - defined as costing $25,000 or less. It came in third behind the number one Hyundai Sonata and number two Toyota Camry. In doing so, the Kizashi beat out the perennial favorite Honda Accord and such new contenders as the Mazda6 and Ford Fusion.

Such tests are subjective, of course, and all drivers have their own opinions about what constitutes a good car. But the result shows the Suzuki Kizashi deserves serious consideration by anyone looking a reasonably-price sedan.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Kizashi.

• Manufacturer: Suzuki.

• Class: Mid-size passenger car.

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

• Style: Four-door, four passenger hatchback.

• Engines: 2.4-liter DOHC inline 4 (180 hp, 170 lb ft).

• Transmissions: 6-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission with manual shift mode (as tested)

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 23/30 (as tested); 23/31.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $19,000 ($21,499 as tested).