From the time I formally introduced myself to the Hooniversalist faithful, my main ride has been a ’91 Lincoln affectionately dubbed the “Town Cow.” And along the way, I’ve chronicled its long, sad decline into beater-dom. I’ve also on several occasions expressed my unabashed affection for the underrated, star-crossed Suzuki Kizashi. Well, eleven days ago, I became the owner of a 2011 Kizashi GTS Sport, and my motoring world has pretty much been turned inside-out — in the best way possible.
The Kizashi is not on most people’s list of cars to own, or even a car they know about. (I’ve mostly gotten “Suzikizziehuhwhat?” from friends and associates, with only a couple of slightly more informed, “Heard of ’em; never seen one” responses.) But ever since I first read about it five years ago, I’ve been a fan. To be perfectly honest, brand loyalty has something to do with it. As a “motorcycle guy,” my past experiences with Suzukis made the brand a bit more appealing to me than, say, Mitsubishi or Subaru. But I also objectively liked a lot of what I read; here was a fairly compact sedan that had exceptional driving dynamics (for a front-wheel-drive car), a solid platform with admirable build quality, and favorable crash test results, all wrapped up in a mature, practical design with the sort of distinctively demure appearance that avoids all the social baggage that comes with purchasing a be-winged, fanboi-pandering production racer. The fact that it was not…ahem…overly imbued with horsepower didn’t bother me, but thanks to people who actually know how cars should drive, such as Jeff Glucker and Chris Haining, I was keenly aware that the one unforgivable blight on the Kizashi’s character was the abominable CVT transmission. However, slightly less than 10% of Kizashis imported to North America (which works out to about 2,000 units) were equipped with a 6-speed manual that reportedly transformed the vehicle. If I could find one of those…
I first started looking for a Kizashi back in late November of last year. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how serious I was at first. Because Suzuki has pulled out of the NA auto market, buying one of their cars has felt like a bit of a crap-shoot. But I started trolling the usual car-selling web sites anyway. I set up an Auto Trader email alert to inform me of any 6-speed Kizashis offered for sale in a 400 mile radius of Kansas City. For months I didn’t get a hit. Then, one day it showed up: a 2011 GTS Sport with 27K was on a dealer’s lot only eight miles from my house. Suddenly, I found out how serious I was. I spoke with the dealer by phone on Thursday. My wife and I went to look at it on Friday after work. Half-way through the test drive I was hooked, and by Saturday afternoon it was mine.
Here was a ridiculously clean, one-owner car that had racked up less than 7,500 per year. The only defect (if you can even call it that) was that the substandard OE Dunlops are nearing the end of their tread life. Out of consideration for the dealer (who were great to deal with), I won’t tell you precisely how far they came down off their asking price. But I will say that I got a cherry, low-mile, well-optioned, four-year-old car for just under one half of its original “as equipped” MSRP. At least right now, orphan-car depreciation is my friend.
I won’t go into a full road test. My impression of an already-discontinued car would be meaningless; I haven’t spent enough time behind the wheel of enough modern cars to accurately determine the state of the art. I will, instead, simply refer you again to Misters Glucker’s and Haining’s reviews. All I can do is compare it to a 25-year old, clapped out Town Car, a 13-year-old 4×4 pickup truck, and memories of my exceedingly unpleasant ’94 Escort wagon. And by any of those comparisons, the Kizashi is a remarkably taut, quiet and precise vehicle. The nickname “Japanese Jetta” certainly fits (as long as you’re talking about one of the good, previous-generation Jettas).
I will briefly say a bit about the manual transmission, since both of the Hooniverse test cars were CVT-equipped. I can’t tell you if the shifter is crisp or rubbery compared to other cars, or whether the clutch pedal travel is long or short. (It’s certainly lighter and shorter than a ’92 Toyota pickup!) What I can say is that, not having driven a manual car in two decades, it took me less than a mile for the Kizashi’s clutch and shifter to feel effortless and totally intuitive. I can understand why the 6-speed is such a transformative option. The CVT was criticized for being jerky, lazy, and making the engine drone annoyingly. The manual may not make the car racer-fast, but it makes it fun to drive in all environments. The 185 HP engine (5 more than the CVT) is pretty gutless down low; all the razzle-dazzle is packed into the upper 1/3rd of the rev range. Fortunately, it loves to rev. Up in that fun zone, the engine creates a wonderfully revvy, zoomy soundtrack…which would be really annoying to listen to all the time. Fortunately, below about 3000 RPM, the engine is remarkably smooth and quiet. So, with six evenly spaced ratios to choose from, serenity or aural entertainment are always a shifter’s throw away. [Plus, I can finally wear this.]
Many of Hooniverse’s contributors have spoken fondly about the “slow car fast” phenomenon. Some vehicles do not offer objectively high performance, but somehow urge the driver to exploit the entire performance envelope they do have. This is one of those cars. Cruising through residential neighborhoods, the Kizashi seems to whisper, “Why are we going so slow? You’ve got more revs and gear ratios to use. Why shift at five grand, when you could shift at six? And why are we taking these curves so slowly?” Don’t ask me how I know, but I can assure you that both the traction control and the rev limiter on my car are fully functional. It’s no WRX or M3, but the Kizashi can legitimately be considered a “driver’s car.”
Having transported myself two decades forwards in automotive technology in the blink of an eye, there are lots of electronic conveniences in the Kizashi that tickle me but seem ordinary to most of you, from the keyless entry/start to the seamless Bluetooth connection to my phone and playlist. And—hey!—everything works; that’s refreshing. But in the end, my greatest satisfaction with the Kizashi is that at almost 52 years old, for the first time in my life I was finally able to buy the one car I really wanted. All my previous 4-wheel vehicles were either hand-me-downs or economically-driven purchases that were all practicality and no heart. (Or in a couple of cases, an endearing but worthless pile of crap.) Even the Town Cow, for all the fondness I developed for it, was not something I would have ever chosen for myself.
The Kizashi may not be a lustworthy model to most, but it checks one legitimately desirable entry off my automotive bucket list, and that’s already made it a great experience.