When I drove the Suzuki Swift Sport recently, the nice (also very attractive and knowledgeable) lady from Suzuki told me about how the brand had always been keen to distance its car-building division from their other operations, including marine and, of course, motorcycles.
This has always struck me as a little odd. Suzuki have made some astonishing bikes over the years, yet few of their cars have ever achieved legendary status. I would have thought that a car like the Swift Sport would rather benefit from being associated with the GSXR1100, or Gixxer Thou as those wearing Rizla replica leathers would call it.
And so we have the Suzuki Kizashi, which takes the brand further from any possible bike association than ever before.
The Kizashi (which Google tells me means “something great is coming”) is the first sign of Suzuki setting their sights upmarket on the UK market, and is being sold as a “Drivers Car“, which is certainly a first. They have, of course offered four-door cars here before; the Reasonably-Priced Liana, and the Blue-Rinse oriented Baleno, but neither of those made much of a splash, compared to the Splash, especially.
It should be mentioned that, statistically, it’s hard to see how the Kizashi can have much of an impact either, regardless how good it turns out to be; owing to the small number Suzuki intend to import. Indeed, this one here is one of 500 imported for 2013, and apparently they’re all sold already. If this is the truth, then what you’re taking the trouble to read is a complete waste of your time. Sorry about that.
Kizashi arrives on these shores in only one specification; top-of-the-line. All-in, fully loaded, everything included. So, what do we have? Well, it’s a straightforward three-box saloon car, ever-so-slightly cab-forward in proportion and approximately Jetta in size. It’s also rather previous-generation Jetta in looks, especially from the front three quarters, and I find that quite annoying. I mean, for years I’ve enjoyed seeing Japanese concept cars which look like they’ve come from Buck Rogers most insular fantasies, but today it seems that they have to take inspiration from the Germans. I mean, the Germans?!
This must be, of course, because they want to project a “quality” image to those impressionable folk who are swayed by such an idea, and who haven’t yet realised that Suzuki cars tend to be pretty robust anyway. As it is, Suzuki cars don’t really have an image in the UK, hence my drivel about motorbikes in the lede paragraph. Whatever, it’s an inoffensive looking machine and I’ll freely admit to quite liking it from the rear three quarters.
A lot more than I like it from inside. It swallowed me alright, though I have to say that I’m actually pretty easy-going when it comes to being cramped in cars, such is my enthusiasm to just drive the damn things. That said, I did find myself suffering from a bit of a left-foot, knee, steering-wheel, centre-console interface problem, even with the seat right back on the runners. I’m 6’5″, though, and look really stupid in school photos.
If I don’t tend to complain about crampedness because I appreciate that I’m a special case, I wil still belly-ache about interior fit and finish, and here the Kizashi offers me a sufficiency of whinging material. The soft-touch plastics that pervade in most areas are all resolutely adequate but determined to never offer even a hint of delight; everything will totally withstand decomposition with age and go on to last for time immemorial. But without ever offering any particular style or tactile pleasure, despite the very high level of equipment fitted. Further to this, the blue-green vacuum fluorescent displays on the centre stack made me think that my dear-departed VCR had returned from the grave.
Power on, keyless because keys are so difficult to deal with, and a muted four-cylinder hum immediately pipes up from the front of the car. It’s created by a 2.4 litre sixteen-valve engine, slightly oversquare, with 178 horsepower credited to it, along with a creditable 230 Newton-metres of torque. But it’s the gearbox that most vividly flavours the driving experience.
You can be excused a feeling of dread when you behold the old-school shifter which could grace any Tokyo taxi. It’s attached to a CVT unit, continuously variable to make the best use of the available power from the engine, which is terrific in theory. Now, I like a good automatic, providing it knows what it’s doing. I can use my right foot to go, left to stop and my hands can concentrate on the job of picking the right line through the corner. In a BMW, for example, this works well; all BMW gearboxes for the last fifteen years or so have employed “fuzzy logic” to second guess what the driver wants to do; changing down automatically when, for example, brakes and steering are applied together as if the car is about to head through a corner.
The Kizashi doesn’t do any of this. The CVT religiously keeps the gear engaged with the engine screaming at the top of its voice, often beyond peak power and far past peak torque, with the result that progress is noisy and not all that quick. The paddles improve matters enormously, letting you change when YOU want to, albeit with a slight delay while the car mulls things over. But with the gearbox under tight rein you gradually become aware that the engine might well be as weak a link as the gearbox.
Thinking about it after the event, the choice of a 2.4 litre normally aspirated engine in a car like this seems like a strange one. For a vehicle which claims to be a drivers car, you might think that a smaller-capacity turbocharged engine might be better suited, especially with a manual gearbox with well-chosen ratios, a la VW group (ironically). Failing that, if Suzuki are absolutely determined to go with the CVT route, why not use a diesel? A good, powerful modern diesel would suit this application very nicely, letting you drive on the torque and offering rather more economy than a feverishly spinning petrol engine does into the bargain. By the way, the emissions figure for Kizashi’s powertrain elect is 191gm/km, which blows it clear out of contention versus its rivals on the grounds of company car tax. Again, it would appear that the choice of this engine and this gearbox together is answerable for that.
All the above is extra annoying when we factor in that the Kizashis handling and roadholding are actually tremendous. I mean genuinely terrific, with huge grip afforded by the 18″ Dunlop MAXX TT tyres and steering which is weighty enough to convince you that you’re experiencing “feel” like you did in the olden days. And then the 1980’s make a welcome guest appearance on the dashboard, where they take care of the switches for that on-demand four-wheel drive system, which was the one element of this car which most intrigued me from the beginning.
I was rather hoping I might experience some of that slot-car sensation you get from certain Subarus, where you can feel all four wheels biting into the blacktop on every corner, but no. The sensation is rather less dramatic; the extra rear-end traction serving mostly to tame the understeer that the car would otherwise suffer from, and indeed does if you disengage the rear end and drive the car like you stole it. The ride quality surprises by being pretty damn good considering the wheels, tyres and “sports” suspension, although there is slight (and I mean slight) tendency for rear end wallow if you really ask the car demanding questions and that in combination with the relatively sharp chassis reflexes could well contribute towards your passengers dispensing brightly-coloured matter from their faces and other orifices. At least that would brighten up the interior.
Summing up; the Kizashi is a paradox. It’s sold as a drivers car and has a mouth-watering list of ingredients but they don’t all sit together well. The handling is excellent but the powertrain is too all wrong to really exploit it. And the whole recipe is served up on a plate that looks good but doesn’t really have an identity of its own. It’s so frustrating.
And I like it. It’s not brilliant, game-changing or revolutionary, but perhaps because it has so many flaws and foibles, it feels human and likeable. It will also very likely be a second-hand bargain in years to come when everybody has forgotten about it. Even by then it will still offer an excellent all-weather transport solution. Just don’t expect a Hayabusa.
EDIT: Hilariously; immediately after writing and uploading this I suddenly realised that Jeff reviewed the Kizashi back in 2010! Even more hilariously, he boiled things down to pretty much the same conclusion I did. How extraordinary. Made I larf.
His review is here: http://hooniverse.info/2010/06/28/2010-suzuki-kizashi/
[Images copyright Chris Haining/Redusernab 2013]