by David Finlay (13 March 2011)
It is nearly as surprising as if Aston Martin had announced that it was going to build a city car. Suzuki, best-known for its motorcycles, small cars and 4x4s, has decided to create a premium D-segment (Mondeo-sized) saloon with a driving experience to rival that offered by Audi and BMW. The result is the Kizashi, which will go on sale in the UK late in 2011.
Actually, the Kizashi isn't as new as British readers might think. It went on sale in other markets last year, but Suzuki GB plc was concerned about the fact that it's not available with a diesel engine, which immediately knocks a large chunk off its potential attractiveness in this country. (Volkswagen has many diesels, and also owns 20% of Suzuki, but that deal was finalised long after the Kizashi was designed, and none of those engines will fit. If there is to be a second-generation Kizashi, it may well have a diesel option.)
The decision to put this car on the sale in the UK after all came very recently. When I was invited to drive it a few weeks ago, the story was that the company was still reviewing the situation. When I climbed aboard last Friday, its UK arrival had been confirmed, but only three days previously.
Even so, Suzuki GB is playing relatively safe by committing to the import of only 500 cars, all of them in the highest possible spec. The trim level is called Sport, and the oily bits comprise a 176bhp 2.4-litre petrol engine, a CVT (continuously variable transmission) and four-wheel drive. A front-wheel drive six-speed manual version also exists, and that will be discussed before the bottom of the screen, but according to the current strategy it won't be sold here.
Although there isn't much in Suzuki's past to suggest that it would be much good at this sort of thing, the Kizashi is an impressive car in many ways. Audi and BMW fans may scoff at the suggestion that it could match the Germans for driving thrills (and it's inconcievable that they would swap their favourite badges for the Suzuki one), but it handles very nicely indeed, and rides astonishingly well considering it uses low-profile 45-section tyres on 18" wheels.
The major controls - steering wheel, throttle pedal and brake pedal in this case - are reasonable precise, and all have a very smooth action which means you're unlikely to jerk into a change of speed or direction. It's comfortable front and back, and although anyone an inch taller than me might find the rear a shade on the tight side it's clear that four six-footers could travel a long way without any trouble.
The interior seems reminiscent of cheaper Suzukis, but it's more adventurously styled than those of most current Audis and BMWs, though the minor switches feel more low-rent than you might expect of a car described by its maker as "premium". More seriously, there is a tremendous amount of road noise on less than brilliantly smooth surfaces - if I occupied a high position in Suzuki I think I'd be demanding better soundproofing as a priority.
It would be easier to fix that than the boot. There's a decent 461 litres of space in there (the same, more or less, as the BMW 3-Series offers) but the opening is narrow, with sides that taper as they go down, a high sill and an intrusive top edge. Changing this would require a complete redesign, as would the staggeringly large blind spots caused by the huge front, side and rear pillars.
I'm also not sure about the choice of that CVT transmission. Of course it makes life a lot easier in town, and if you switch to manual mode there are six ratio holds, selected by using either the gearlever or paddles mounted on the steering wheel.
It's great most of the time, but if for full acceleration you have to floor the throttle and leave it there while the engine revs rise to just under 6000rpm, where they will stay until you reach your intended speed and back off. As is generally the case with CVT cars in these circumstances, the resulting loud and constant drone quickly becomes very tiresome.
I'm dismayed to find that the bad points of the Kizashi take longer to describe than the good ones. Forget the word count - this is a much better car than you might expect a large Suzuki to be, and I'd very much like to live with one for longer than the hour and a bit I've had with it so far.
On the other hand, the next car I drove impressed me more. That was the front-wheel drive manual Kizashi I mentioned earlier. It would cost just over £22,000, rather than the £24,000 which Suzuki will probably ask for the 4x4 CVT, and although there are no official comparitive figures I think it's safe to say that it's quicker, more economical and less CO2-ish.
Even with all the power of the engine going through one axle, the handling is still splendid, and when you're accelerating hard the sound of the engine sweeping through its upper range is much more appealing than the 5800rpm-or-so drone mentioned before. The gearchange of the test car was a bit floppy, but otherwise this is, as far as I'm concerned, the better car.
Still, I can imagine 500 people being impressed enough with the 4x4 CVT to pay £24,000 for it. And while it's always possible that Suzuki will have abandoned the whole idea within 18 months of me writing this, I think and hope that the Kizashi has a bright future ahead of it, especially if some of the more obvious flaws are attended to and a diesel engine becomes available in the second generation.