“Kizashi”, the name of Suzuki’s first and last home-made mid-size sedan, translates to “something great is coming”. In a rare example of truth in nomenclature, the Kizashi proved to be an eminently capable mid-size sedan, Suzuki managing to hit one out of the park on its first attempt. Alas, it proved all too difficult for Suzuki to convince buyers to take a chance on a mid-size sedan with a Suzuki badge.
The Suzuki Verona had given buyers – at least those in the US – the chance to get used to this unfamiliar concept. But like the Reno and Forenza and the Canada-only Swift+, the Verona was merely a Daewoo given to Suzuki dealers by General Motors to help fill out their showrooms. Although charming in some respects, like its inline six engine and Italian styling, the Verona sunk without a trace.
After being teased endlessly at auto shows (with three different concepts), Suzuki finally brought their mid-size sedan to market in 2009. Although there had been rumors it’d use the GM Epsilon platform (it didn’t) and that it would be built in the US (it wasn’t), the Kizashi proved to be a Japanese-developed, Japanese-built affair that owed nothing to GM.
With a total length of 183.1 inches and a wheelbase of 106.3 inches, it was almost identical in dimensions to the outgoing first-generation Mazda6 although it measured 1.6 inches wider. This meant it was small for its class, even by European standards; top sellers in Europe like the Ford Mondeo were larger overall and mid-size stalwarts in North America like the Toyota Camry were larger still.
When the Kizashi launched, Suzuki was in the process of extricating itself from GM. At the start of the car’s development, GM had a 3% stake in Suzuki, down from the 20% it held from 2000 until 2005. In 2008, they divested entirely. GM had initially offered Suzuki the use of its 3.6 High Feature V6 for high-spec versions of the Kizashi but rescinded. In 2010, Volkswagen bought a 20% stake in Suzuki and there were tentative plans to use one of their engines for the Kizashi. That partnership proved to be utterly disastrous, ending less than two years later in arbitration proceedings. Rumored diesel and hybrid versions never eventuated, nor did a proposed crossover wagon in the vein of the Kizashi 1 concept. Only the 2.4 four-cylinder would ever reside under the hood of the sedan-only Kizashi, even in the all-wheel-drive Sport variant.
Fortunately, the 2.4 had a class-competitive 180 hp at 6500 rpm and 170 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm and, even in all-wheel-drive form, the Kizashi could hit 0-60 in under 9 seconds (FWD models, being 150 pounds lighter, hit it in just under 8). The all-wheel-drive system, dubbed i-AWD, was impressive. Under acceleration, up to 50% of torque could be sent to the rear wheels.
AWD models were also lowered slightly and received paddle shifters – sadly, the six-speed manual was only available with front-wheel-drive. Much as critics had concurred the front-wheel-drive model was fun-to-drive, so too did critics find the all-wheel-drive model a delight to steer. A common refrain was that this chassis could so easily handle more power and that it was so disappointing the all-wheel-drive models didn’t have any increase in power or torque. This meant sport-trimmed AWD models were actually the slowest in the range. Still, the availability of AWD was a relatively, if not entirely, unique selling point for the Kizashi. It further enhanced the Kizashi’s status as an auto journalist’s favorite, in the same category as cars like the Mazda6.
When I was shopping for a new car in 2016, I test drove a used Kizashi. The owner tossed me the keys and told me to bring it back in one piece so I drove – rather enthusiastically, I might add – around her neighbourhood. The 2.4 four-cylinder under the hood was lusty and sounded great for a four-banger. The CVT seemed not to have any of the dreaded droning characteristics I’d expected from it. The interior was well constructed from pleasant materials and the dash had a simple, user-friendly design. The steering was well-weighted and had plenty of feel and the handling was nimble – this was a fun-to-drive sedan, just like all the critics had said.
Why didn’t I pull the trigger? My example was a base model XL and it was missing features I wanted like parking sensors, although it was otherwise well-equipped with six airbags, keyless start, and an audio system with a USB outlet. Unfortunately, there were no higher-spec models in my area and my price range. But there was another issue I had with the Kizashi. Although it had tidy handling for a mid-size sedan, the Kizashi had a slightly springy feeling to its ride, always feeling just a touch unsettled. It was enough to deter me but given the glowing praise heaped upon this car by American and Australian journalists, it may have been an issue with the one I test drove.
There was one last, minor issue I had with the Kizashi. Though not a deal-breaker, I found the Kizashi’s styling off-putting. The Kizashi 3 concept had looked hunkered down and aggressive but in production form the Kizashi was anything but. The styling, in my eyes, resembled a slightly larger, melted Volkswagen Jetta from the same time period. The bulging trunk lid was the worst design element by far. It was a strange melange of bland and awkward although, with larger wheels and the right paint color, the Kizashi could look smart. Still, Suzuki might’ve been wise to give the Kizashi some more visual drama if they wanted it to stand out in a cutthroat segment.
Perhaps the greatest impediment to the Kizashi, however, was Suzuki’s smaller dealer network in markets like the US. The automaker was struggling there, a bad omen for the Kizashi that had been developed with the US market in mind. Suzuki withdrawing from the US market in 2012 was what likely spelled the end of the Kizashi, the car finally being withdrawn from its remaining markets in 2016. Sales had never cracked 10,000 annual units during the Kizashi’s truncated run in the crucial US market, meaning it was outsold 4-to-1 by the Mazda6. Even the dated, moribund Mitsubishi Galant sold in almost double the Kizashi’s numbers. That must have stung Suzuki, who had spent an untold amount of money developing the Kizashi. European sales were even worse.
Although the Kizashi had met the design brief in terms of dynamic ability, its sub-Camry dimensions hindered it in North America while its lack of a diesel or wagon variant hampered it in Europe. Relatively anonymous styling and buyers’ unfamiliarity with a large Suzuki were the final nails in the coffin. Suzuki’s Australian Managing Director Masaaki Kato went so far as to call the Kizashi a “headache” and an “unlucky car” in 2013, blaming the car’s launch during the Global Financial Crisis for its ensuing lack of success. The Kizashi even failed to make an impact in Suzuki’s largest market, India, which accounts for just over half of all global sales.
Though it never received the V6 it deserved or the hybrid or diesel versions that could have helped it, the Kizashi was a frankly astonishing first-time effort for Suzuki. In one attempt, they had developed a well-built, fun-to-drive Mazda6 rival. A pity nobody outside of the buff rags cared.