2010 Suzuki Kizashi GTS – Click above for high-res image gallery

The 2010 Kizashi will change the way you look at Suzuki. To put it bluntly, the Kizashi is the strongest evidence yet that Suzuki's automotive division is no longer operating on autopilot in the States. And what's more, the brand is showing serious confidence. Consider the vehicles against which the automaker wants you to cross shop its Kizashi: the Acura TSX and Audi A4.

Suzuki has launched a promotion called the Kizashi Test Drive Challenge that will pay $100 to anyone who test drives a Kizashi and still decides to buy the more expensive TSX or A4. After spending some quality time with the model, we don't envy those potential Acura and Audi customers who are unprepared for how difficult their decision is going to be.

Photos copyright ©2009 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

For the longest time, Suzuki subsisted in the U.S. market by selling mostly rebadged versions of other automakers' vehicles, all of them forgettable and none exceptional. Historically, the brand has been wedded to General Motors through products like the three-row XL7 that is built atop GM's ubiquitous Theta platform, to say nothing of the Forenza and Reno, versions of models developed and built by GM's South Korean subsidiary, GM Daewoo. More recently there's the Suzuki Equator mid-size pickup, a refaced Nissan Frontier introduced in 2008 that doesn't even appear on the company's U.S. website anymore.

Excluded from this group is the SX4, which is the brand's last new product before the Kizashi. This well regarded small sedan/hatchback combo is fun to drive and available with lots of upscale equipment, like all-wheel drive and navigation, for under $18,000.

The Kizashi is the largest car that Suzuki has developed for U.S. consumption since the Verona, another rebadged version of a GM Daewoo product that was discontinued due to poor sales. The Kizashi still shares some General Motors DNA; it's based on The General's Epsilon II platform, which also underpins the Buick LaCrosse and upcoming 2011 Regal, Saab 9-5 and Opel Insignia. Judging by our experience with this platform, however, it's the best bit of hardware that Suzuki's ever borrowed from GM. Correction, Suzuki informs us that while it had worked with GM on a mid-size sedan design study back when the two companies were linked more closely, the Kizashi is 100% Suzuki.

What's more, the Kizashi's styling isn't the result of rebadging another company's car. In fact, Suzuki designers have been working on its look for years. During that time, three consecutive Kizashi concepts were introduced. Suzuki surprised us first with a wagon concept at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show. The second concept, a CUV, debuted at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, and the third and final concept, a sedan, was a sexy silver bullet that got our attention at the 2008 New York Auto Show.

It's too bad the production Kizashi doesn't bear a closer resemblance to that third and final concept, which truly had us drooling in the Big Apple back in 2008. What Suzuki is selling today clearly shares styling cues with that car, but also carries the burden of meeting federal safety requirements and fitting on the Epsilon II platform. As such, much of the concept's organic beauty has been sacrificed for the privilege of being a modern car on sale in the U.S.

But hold on, because that doesn't mean the Kizashi is a dog. Suzuki will be happy to hear that we received a number of unsolicited comments comparing its new design to an Audi. These came from people who aren't enthusiasts but know that Audi is a premium brand, which confirmed our own experience that the Kizashi gives an expensive-looking first impression, in this case, aided by our GTS model's rich-looking grey metallic paint.

If anything, the Kizashi is at least Suzuki's own design. While we initially panned the car's shape during our First Drive for being derivative, a closer inspection and the passage of time has eroded our criticism. We originally said the hood look lifted from a Chrysler PT Cruiser, but have grown to really like the lines that come down from the bottom of each A-pillar and curve across the hood toward the inside of each headlight. They look like arched eyebrows over the angry squint of each projector beam lamp. The Kizashi's face looks straight-up evil, with nothing but the grille's slight upward bend into a malevolent smile to soften things up.

There are subtle styling elements like this all over the Kizashi. The broad shoulder line beneath the side windows artfully flows forward into each headlight and down into the surprisingly flared front fenders. The subtle duck bill rear spoiler that seems to disappear when not viewing the car in profile. The exhaust pipes that exit through a pair of chrome surrounds integrated into the rear bumper. Something new caught our eye every time we approached the Kizashi during its week in our keep, which suggests to us that the design will age nicely for owners and not need tweaking to stay fresh in a model year or two.

The Kizashi's interior, meanwhile, beats the low bar set by past Suzuki models but lands mid-pack compared to the current competition. Considering that Ford has packed the inside of even its low cost models with soft touch materials, there's no excuse for an interior aimed at the likes of Audi and Acura to be covered in hard plastics from door to door. The cloth seats in our GTS tester ("leather-appointed" thrones are available) were comfortable and feature semi-firm bolsters that kept our keisters planted, but we had trouble finding a comfortable driving position, even with 10-way power adjustability and the standard tilting and telescoping steering wheel.

Infotainment-wise, the Kizashi offers almost everything you'd want if cross-shopping a more expensive entry level luxury sport sedan. Our GTS model came standard with a 425-watt Rockford Fosgate system plus integrated USB port in the dash and available wireless Bluetooth audio for hooking up an iPhone, iPod Touch or other BT digital music player. Bluetooth hands-free calling can be had as well, though set up is a decidedly frustrating affair that can only be achieved by patiently listening to audible prompts and doing what the female voice says quickly before you forget.

The Kizashi's dual-zone climate control, keyless push-button start, available heated front seats and integrated steering wheel controls are the same top shelf features you'll find in those more expensive German and Japanese cars. Conspicuously absent, however, is a navigation system. Dealers will have a hard time explaining to customers why an item that comes standard in certain trims of the less expensive SX4 and can't be had at all in the Kizashi.

UPDATE: Suzuki informs us that a nav system is a port-installed option at launch, while a fully integrated unit will be available for the 2011 model year. We're trying to get a hold of some images from Suzuki of what each looks like, so stay tuned.

Forgetting the hard plastics and lack of nav, the Kizashi remains a comfortable sedan for four people. The roof extends far back over the rear passengers before plunging down to meet a high trunk lid, which provides both excellent rear headroom as well as a couple extra cubic feet of cargo space. The rear seats can also be folded forward, which comes in handy when trying to fit awkwardly sized items in the trunk thanks to the rear suspension's intrusion on either side.

So far, we've said nothing about the Kizashi that would make us want to buy one over an Acura TSX and Audi A4. That's because we've yet to talk about what lies beneath the styling and behind the interior. Underhood is a 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder producing 185 horsepower and 170 lb-feet of torque. That's the only engine (for now), but from there you've got choices: front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) and a six-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT), with or without paddle shifters.

First off, if you opt for AWD then you're locked into a CVT transmission. With FWD, the infinitely variable ratios of the CVT transmission do get better gas mileage than the manual's six cogs can muster (23/31 mpg versus 20/29 mpg), but any fuel savings is lost if you go with AWD. Our recommendation? Go FWD with the six-speed manual. You'll be saving both weight (200 pounds versus the AWD/CVT model) and money, not to mention that CVT-equipped Kizashis lose five horsepower. This is our how our GTS model came equipped and it's the one that may ruin your plans to liberate $100 from Suzuki's wallet.

Let's talk engines. The Kizashi's is slightly more powerful than other four-cylinders used by the competition in their base models. But whereas most of the competition also offers a V6 engine, the 2.4-liter four-cylinder is the only powerplant available in the Kizashi, so it better be good. And it is. Very good.

This 2.4-liter doesn't act like its in the same class as other base engines. Rather, it acts like a premium mill, the kind of four-cylinder that's offered in addition to a V6, not below it. Suzuki has set its redline at 6,500 RPM, and go there it will with little provocation. Power delivery is always smooth and there's a noticeable reserve to tap above 3,500 RPM.

While we recommend the six-speed manual transmission over the CVT, that's not to say it's the best rowing machine ever made. The clutch pedal is light and won't cause fatigue, but the shifter's throws are long and loose. It's the only drivetrain component that feels outclassed here, and Suzuki should spend some dollars to get it right.

The Kizashi will reach 60 mph from a standstill in 7.5 seconds before its Akebono brakes haul it down. That's not remarkably quick, but straight lines aren't what the Kizashi does best. The suspension is comprised of MacPherson struts up front and a five-point multilink setup in the rear with KYB dampers at all four corners. Combined with an extremely rigid frame, the relatively soft suspension makes cruising comfortable yet feels confident in corners. Put another way, the suspension's got range and will serve its master well whether a motion sick-prone mother-in-law or hard-to-impress Audi owner is sitting shotgun.

The real ace up the Kizashi's sleeve, though, is its steering. An often overlooked fact is that fun-to-drive vehicles don't have to be quick. A host of other aspects can pick up the performance slack, and steering is a big one. Inputs entered via the Kizashi's compact, thick-rimmed steering wheel got delivered to the road quickly through our GTS tester's 18-inch alloys wrapped in 235/45R18 all-season rubber. From there, we were rewarded with actual feedback from the road that wasn't obscured by numbness from the power steering. It's a terrific system that's accurate without being twitchy and effortless without being over-boosted.

By the end of our time with the 2010 Suzuki Kizashi GTS, we were totally on board with comparing this car to the Acura TSX and Audi A4. Then we started comparing prices. A base Kizashi S starts at $18,999, and while we wouldn't put anything but the GTS model up against an Acura or Audi, it's worth noting that every Kizashi model comes very well equipped and the same engine, transmissions, steering and brakes are used in the base S, SE and most expensive SLS model.

The Kizashi GTS starts at $22,499 with little available in the way of options. The Acura TSX 2.4 starts at $29,310 and the Audi A4 2.0T at $31,450. Granted, both competitors feature more powerful four-cylinder engines – considerably so in the case of the turbocharged Audi – but as we said, a fun to drive car isn't necessarily the quickest one to the next stop light. The question is, how much is a second of acceleration worth to you? Suzuki is willing to bet a Ben Franklin that it's not much.

Photos copyright ©2009 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

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