What a difference a transmission makes.
Americans overwhelmingly prefer automatics, by a ratio of more than nine to one over manuals. These days there are a variety of choices: the familiar automatic with four, five, six, seven and even eight speeds; the continuously-variable, which uses belts and pulleys—or, in some cases, gears—to seamlessly transfer engine power to the wheels, and several types of automated twin-clutch or sequential gearboxes that operate without a clutch pedal.
The tried-and-true manual gearbox, assuming it has a decent shift linkage with a clutch that engages smoothly, is the transmission of choice for most enthusiasts. It gives the driver total control over the engine’s power output in relation to the vehicle’s speed.
With increased engineering sophistication, many automatics now rival and even beat manuals for fuel economy and performance. Nevertheless, if you want a car with a sporting character, the stick shift is the way to go.
A great example of the dichotomy is the 2012 Kizashi, a mid-size sedan from Suzuki of Japan, which made its bones by designing and building some of the better motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and marine motors. It is so well known in those venues that it has had to educate consumers about the fact that it also produces cars and SUVs.
The Kizashi—the name means great things are on the way—is the company’s current flagship and is nearly in a class by itself. Though it has mid-size passenger room and decent trunk capacity, it has tidy overall dimensions—anywhere from three to 11 inches shorter than other mid-size four-doors—that make it easier to park and contribute to a controlling feel.
Moreover, it looks the part of a sports sedan, with aggressive styling viewed from the front and especially the rear, where big dual exhaust outlets dominate the view.
The Kizashi is available with all-wheel drive or standard front-wheel drive. Unusually, a switch on the dash engages the all-wheel drive; it can be turned off when not needed to slightly enhance fuel economy. However, all-wheel drive is available only with the continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT).
There’s only one engine: a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that delivers 185 horsepower with the manual gearbox or 180 with the automatic. Either way, it’s enough to propel the Kizashi from zero to 60 miles an hour in the seven-second range.
But the character of the car changes dramatically, depending on whether you’re driving the 185-horsepower version with the six-speed manual gearbox and front-wheel drive or the 180-horsepower variant with the automatic CVT and all-wheel drive.
With the latter setup, as on the Kizashi test car, you have a pleasant, accommodating mid-size family sedan with the feel of a well-executed compact. The CVT has no shift points; belts and pulleys vary the ratio depending on how much work the engine needs to do.
The rap on some CVTs is that they sound as if they’re slipping when the engine spools up. That’s not the case with this one; it simply and smoothly gets the Kizashi up to speed in a relaxed fashion. There’s some engine noise at higher revolutions but little sensation of anything slipping.
CVTs usually produce fuel economy similar to that of a manual gearbox. The city/highway EPA rating for the test car was 20/29 miles to the gallon. However, it delivered considerably less—on the order of about 17, according to the onboard computer—in a week of urban and freeway driving.
The Kizashi’s CVT also has an automated faux manual-shift mode, operated by paddles on the steering wheel. Computer programming mimics a six-speed transmission, enabling the driver to shift up or down and hold the transmission in a selected gear ratio.
But despite that, and the enhancement of a handling-oriented suspension system on the GTS Sport model, it’s not enough to overcome the overall sensation that you’re driving a family car rather than a sports sedan.
The ride is stiff but well controlled, and the steering provides good feedback as well as straight-line tracking. Inside, the driver and front-seat passenger are treated to nicely shaped seats with solid thigh support and sturdy and comfortable cloth upholstery. On the test car, the power driver’s seat included memory settings. A tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel helped accommodate drivers of varying sizes.
In back, the outboard seats provide adequate head and knee room for anyone about 5 feet 10 inches tall or less. The center-rear position has a high, hard cushion, and there’s a giant floor hump that eliminates foot space. There’s a well-shaped and padded trunk, and the rear seatbacks fold to provide additional cargo space
Other amenities included pushbutton starting with keyless locking operated by buttons in the door handles. Automatic climate control, an upgraded audio system with iPod and Bluetooth connectivity and a motorized glass sunroof contributed to an upscale ambiance.
A base Kizashi S, with front-wheel drive, has a sticker price of $18,999. Tested for this review was the GTS Sport all-wheel drive, one of 14 variations of the Kizashi. It had a starting price of $25,749 and, with a few options, topped out at $26,404.
- Model: 2012 Suzuki Kizashi Sport GTS AWD four-door sedan.
- Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder, 180 horsepower.
- Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic with manual-shift mode and switchable all-wheel drive.
- Overall length: 15 feet 32 inches.
- EPA passenger/trunk volume: 105/13 cubic feet.
- Weight: 3,483 pounds.
- EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 22/29 miles to the gallon.
- Base price, including destination charge: $25,749.
- Price as tested: $26,404.
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