Pros: Sophisticated ride/handling balance; tidy dimensions; surprisingly roomy back seat; available all-wheel drive on every model

Cons: Underwhelming fuel economy (except with AWD); only one engine; limited Bluetooth availability; smallish trunk

If you think struggling automakers should focus on making great products, you probably haven't considered the 2012 Suzuki Kizashi. Why? Because the Kizashi is undoubtedly a great product-has been for years now-yet the driving public has barely noticed. We're talking about a car that has racked up more critical acclaim than most mid-size sedans could dream of. A car with European-style driving dynamics, room for four adults and available all-wheel drive. The trouble is, Suzuki lacks the marketing budget and dealer network to turn the Kizashi into the next big thing.

That's a real shame, because we hate to see great engineering go unrecognized. The Kizashi is a strong contender for the crown in any objective comparison of four-cylinder mid-size sedans. Mostly, that's down to the way it drives: solid at speed like a Volkswagen yet eager to change direction like, dare we say it, a BMW. But the Kizashi has most of the practical family-sedan boxes checked as well, and it does it all for a remarkably reasonable price.

The Kizashi's main shortcomings might have been addressed already if the car had met with more sales success. Here's the list: the 2.4-liter inline-4 engine isn't good on gas, there's no engine upgrade for performance junkies and the optional continuously variable transmission isn't up to the high standards set by the chassis. These aren't trivial issues, and we're sure they've dissuaded some adventurous souls who made the trek to their Suzuki dealers.

But we still consider the Kizashi a must drive among mid-size sedans, and we think you should, too. Struggling automakers need more than just great products, but we're doing our best to spread the word about Suzuki's finest.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Suzuki Kizashi is offered in S, SE, Sport GTS and Sport SLS trim levels.

The Kizashi S starts with nondescript steel wheels that have plastic covers, but it also offers niceties like keyless entry with push-button ignition and dual-zone automatic climate control. The SE steps up to 18-inch alloy wheels, a power driver's seat with memory, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, iPod/USB connectivity and optional leather upholstery with heated power front seats.

The Kizashi Sport GTS features unique exterior styling elements, different 18-inch alloys, foglamps, a lowered suspension, a sport steering wheel, shift paddles (CVT only), optional Bluetooth connectivity and a 425-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system with 10 speakers. The Sport SLS is treated to leather upholstery, Bluetooth, heated power front seats, an optional Kenwood navigation system, rear parking sensors and automatic headlamps.

The Kizashi's front seats aren't particularly aggressive in their bolstering, but we'd say they're more supportive than the average mid-size sedan's seats. The tilting and telescoping steering wheel could stand to telescope out a bit farther for those with longer legs; however, we're fans of the perforated leather trim on Sport steering wheels. We also like the simple, crisp gauges, which look like they came out of a more expensive car.

The Kizashi's ergonomics are generally satisfactory, and the standard dual-zone automatic climate control system is a nice feature that's almost unheard of at this price. Materials quality is nothing special, but we'd call it competitive with rivals like the Honda Accord.

The back seat is one of the Kizashi's unexpected strengths. Given the car's relatively compact dimensions, we expected it to have compromised rear quarters, but fortunately the engineers made the bottom cushions higher than normal, which promotes thigh support and increases effective legroom. You might think headroom would be a problem, but somehow, it's not-most adults should have plenty of clearance. We also give the back seat points for its unusually supportive contours; usually you have to pay more for such attention to detail.

The Kizashi's trunk is on the small side, measuring 13.3 cubic feet.

Technology

The Kizashi gets a thumbs-up for its standard dual-zone automatic climate control and the wide availability of iPod/USB connectivity. However, you shouldn't have to upgrade to the Sport GTS to get Bluetooth. The Kizashi's optional navigation system-only available on the pricey Sport SLS-is a Kenwood unit with a 6.1-inch screen that uses Garmin navigation software. It's not the fastest or most aesthetically pleasing navigation system on the market, but we appreciate that it's fully integrated into the dash, as opposed to Suzuki's typical portable unit that pops up from the dash top.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Kizashi S and Sport GTS models with front-wheel drive come standard with a six-speed manual transmission; a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is optional on those models and required with the SE and Sport SLS. All-wheel drive is optional on every Kizashi, but it only comes with the CVT.

The Kizashi with six-speed manual is rated at 185 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque; the CVT version drops to 180 hp. Acceleration is strong compared with other engines of this size, and we've found the 2.4 to be pleasantly refined at higher rpm. Some may wish for more power, though, and Suzuki can't help them there. We aren't big fans of the CVT, because it saps some of the engine's strength and also causes the constant-rpm drone during acceleration that's typical across the CVT spectrum. The six-speed manual is a more satisfying and responsive choice.

Fuel economy is 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway with front-wheel drive and the CVT, 21/31 mpg with the six-speed manual and 23/30 mpg with AWD. The latter rating is pretty good for an AWD sedan, but the others leave something to be desired.

Safety

The 2012 Suzuki Kizashi comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS, active front head restraints and eight airbags (front, front side, rear side, full-length side-curtain).

The government had not crash tested the Kizashi using its latest methodology as of this writing, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Kizashi its highest rating of Good in every category except roof strength, where the Kizashi was deemed Acceptable (the second-highest rating).

Driving Impressions

Volkswagen products were among the benchmarks used during the Kizashi's development, and the suspension engineers did their homework. We'd call the Kizashi's driving character "Volkswagen plus." There's that German-style suppleness on rough surfaces, but the Kizashi turns into corners with more enthusiasm and less body roll. Road noise could be quieter, but it's rarely a problem. If you put a premium on the way a car drives, the Kizashi was designed for people like you.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Optima - The Optima is larger and less composed, but it offers an excellent turbocharged inline-4 at a reasonable price. Looks great, too.

Toyota Camry - The reinvented Camry is actually pleasant to drive these days. The SE version is an especially strong Kizashi competitor.

Volkswagen Jetta - Although the Jetta is technically a class below, its back seat is surprisingly roomy, like the Kizashi's. Interestingly, the new Jetta's downgraded interior materials are now worse than the Kizashi's, but there are some similarities in the way these cars drive. See especially the turbocharged GLI model with its upgraded interior.

AutoTrader Recommends

We're betting Suzuki salespeople are ready to make a deal, so we'd set our sights on the attractive, well-equipped Sport GTS with the six-speed manual. If that's out of your price range, consider going with the base S manual, which is a heck of a car for under $20,000.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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