By Warren Brown
Sunday, May 9, 2010; F01
MONTEREY, CALIF. Much of the automobile industry's recovery in the United States will be driven by sales of smartly appointed, mileage-sensible, fun-to-drive family cars with base prices of $25,000 or less.
It is a redeveloping mainstream market in which many of the product leaders are already emerging. They include the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, the 2010 Kia Forte, and the latest iterations of the Ford Fiesta, Focus and Fusion. Also making their bids are the 2011 Buick Regal, Chevrolet Cruze and Chevrolet Malibu from General Motors.
Other easy bets for success include the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the updated Honda Accord and Honda Fit, and the refitted Toyota Camry and Corolla.
It's a tough market, one made tougher by a growing consumer demand for beautiful, high-quality, high-performance motorized austerity.
Suzuki, a Japanese company specializing in small engines for motorcycles, boats and automobiles, has never done well in the U.S. car market. Its product offerings and retail dealerships have long been too few. And the Suzuki automobiles sold here have usually paled in comparison with the competition in terms of design, performance and overall likability.
But as evidenced by this week's subject automobile, the 2011 Suzuki Kizashi SE, Suzuki clearly intends to stay in the fight.
The Kizashi is the best car yet to come to the United States wearing a Suzuki badge. The exterior is round and solid in homage to European small-car design.
Interior materials are of high quality, yet austere and stoic in presentation. The Kizashi, for example, evidences none of the heart-grabbing, eye-popping "wow" factor found in the 2011 Mayfair edition of the Mini Cooper.
But with its dragster-drooped face and similarly rendered rear end there is something playful about the Kizashi, something that says, "Let's run!"
Unloaded -- minus a full complement of driver, four passengers and their two-pieces-apiece luggage -- it isn't an idle boast. The Kizashi's 2.4-liter, 16-valve in-line four-cylinder engine delivers a lot of oomph (185 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque) for the money. But its unloaded swagger becomes more of a wiggle-waggle with each new passenger and piece of luggage coming aboard.
Still, considering its base price of $22,749 and its overall build quality and performance, the Kizashi is considerably north of "okay." It has a fighting chance in an increasingly pugilistic market. But it will take its knocks, if only because of its twisted mouthful of a name.
Suzuki's marketers messed up on this one. In a U.S. market where women directly account for 50 percent of all new-car sales and where they influence 85 percent of those sales -- meaning the car doesn't get bought if the women in the household don't want it -- Suzuki comes stateside with a hard-on-the-ears (key-za-shee) Japanese boy's name that bespeaks a powerful, prosperous male future.
Good luck with that, Suzuki. But congratulations on finally getting a message that even your American competitors now understand. To wit: "Small" does not necessarily mean "cheap." Pride of ownership can come with four cylinders as well as six or eight. A federal gas-guzzler tax tacked onto an automobile's transaction price nowadays bespeaks something less than common sense.
Brown is a special correspondent.