Chassis and suspension are the best parts of the driving impressions. And brakes. Engine is good too. That about covers everything.
The Kizashi was developed on the Autobahn, alpine roads in Switzerland, cobblestone streets in England, and on the Nurburgring racing circuit. The firm KYB shock absorbers don't swallow the bumps or smooth them out, but neither do they transmit them. They follow the undulations in the road, and that's not uncomfortable but confidence inspiring. You know they're paying attention. At high speeds on a curvy freeway, you can still feel the shocks working. The car moves a bit as it follows the road, so you have to stay alert.
Suzuki put a great deal of time and pride into the suspension and chassis with torsional rigidity higher than some European competitors. The Kizashi chief engineer, Hide Kumashiro, a former motorcycle road racer, stressed handling as his highest priority, which is why high-performance KYB rear shocks are used, with a carefully designed multi-link rear suspension with imbedded aluminum. We pushed the Kizashi on the road, over undulating and sometimes rough surfaces, quick changes of direction under braking, and it never gave us an unsatisfying moment of wobble or softness. Nor did it ever jar us, not once, which might be saying even more. We weren't in the Alps, merely the Gifford Pinchot National Forest around Washington's Mount Adams, but we'll take it.
The Kizashi feels sportier than the Mazda6 we recently tested, especially the engine. It's smooth, sharp, and sounds nice, from zero to 6500 rpm redline, but 6000 rpm is a sweet spot to upshift with the 6-speed gearbox. The engine characteristics are steady. Against its competitors, the 185-horsepower Kizashi is solid; by comparison, the Acura TSX has 201 hp, the Mazda6 170 hp. But the Kizashi is quicker from zero to 60 than either of them, and a lot cheaper than the TSX.
We also drove a Kizashi with the CVT, running it hard for about 80 challenging, curvy miles. The CVT sucks 5 horsepower and brings the redline down to 6000 rpm, and compromises the sportiness. It shifts with paddles through six steps (like gears in a gearbox, but not), and you have to shift like mad to keep the engine in the powerband, even with good torque.
At full throttle, the engine jumps to 6000 rpm and just stays there and buzzes away as the car gains speed. The response of the CVT is sharp, but it just changes the power delivery too much, if what you want is the throttle feel of an old-school sports sedan. It changes the whole dynamic and sound of the engine. But if you don't care about driving hard over curving roads, you'll be happier with the CVT. Around town, you can forget it, or you can use the paddles if you want. In that way it's like an automatic transmission, only more efficient.
We found the SLS with the 6-speed manual quiet under acceleration and even quieter at a cruising speed. Eighty miles per hour is only 3000 rpm in 6th gear, and the car might as well be gliding, for all its smoothness. And because the torque is a healthy 170 pound-feet at 4000 rpm, there's enough torque at lower rpm in 6th gear to accelerate when needed, without downshifting all the time. While we were at it, we got nearly 25 mpg cruising at 80 mpg.
We got about a dozen hot laps around Portland International Raceway in the Kizashi. A rev limiter intrudes (mildly) at 6500 rpm, so shifting at 6000 rpm works well. The clutch and linkage are neither short-throw nor aggressive; in fact the clutch feels a bit soft, but that's not a bad thing. It's a mild sports sedan.
On Portland International Raceway, it didn't understeer. That's rare for any front-wheel-drive car, including some of the expensive sports sedans. Suzuki brought a test mule to the launch, a Kizashi fitted with a Suzuki/GM 3.6-liter V6 engine making more than 250 horsepower, and we took some laps in that hotrod; driven with appropriate restraint, it didn't understeer either. No V6 is planned for the Kizashi, but the point was proven, that the Kizashi suspension is built to take a lot more horsepower. A turbocharged Kizashi is said to be on the way.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 23/30 mpg City/Highway for a Suzuki Kizashi SE with the CVT. The CVTs generally get better fuel economy than the manual transmissions, beating them by 2-3 mpg around town. All-wheel drive costs about one mpg: A GTS FWD CVT is rated 23/30 mpg, with a GTS AWD CVT rating 22/29 mpg. Best rating is from the Kizashi S CVT with 23/31 mpg; we're guessing the actual difference is likely a fraction of 1 mpg attributable to the lighter weight and skinnier tires of the base model.
As for the brakes, we found the touch to be beautiful, using them frequently on the curves on the road, and heavily around PIR. We can't imagine anyone in a sports sedan like this one needing more.
The optional all-wheel drive moves the Kizashi into exclusive territory along with the Audi A3 and Subaru Legacy. Called i-AWD, or intelligent all-wheel drive, it's turned on by the driver, and moves up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels.