The roads that twist through the Laurentians north of Montreal and the ICAR racing circuit, laid out on the dead flat aprons of the surreally derelict Mirabel international airport, proved ideal choices for Suzuki to introduce the Sport version of its mid-size Kizashi sedan last week.
The ski country roads, a mix of frost-heaves and tar patches interspersed with wickedly enticing smoothly paved sections, showed just how dramatically a car's character can be changed by a rewrite of the spec sheet.
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In the 2011 Kizashi Sport's case a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and all-wheel-drive system were edited out, along with some 110 kg of weight and five extra horsepower, front-wheel-drive and a 10-mm trimming of the ride height pencilled in.
The results of the weight loss, the incremental power gain and the manual gearbox are sharper handling and much livelier acceleration. Getting to 100 km/h now takes about eight seconds versus almost 10 seconds with the CVT/AWD-equipped XS. It's not a quick car but certainly competitive with and faster than some of the other four-banger powered mid-sizers.
And if you make full use of the first four of the gearbox's six ratios - the top two serve better as fuel-saving enhancers - which are accessed via a neat and quick gear change, you can row it along a back road in an entertaining fashion. Having to use the gearbox to get the most out of the engine shouldn't be seen as a drawback by anybody who actually enjoys engaging in the driving act.
The 2.4 litre four-cylinder (the only one offered, and nobody's talking out loud about turbos or V-6s), makes 185 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. The Sport's "extra" five horsepower seems to have more to do with the CVT transmission's need to deal with five less than some demon tweak that upped the number.
This smooth-spinning motor is well isolated (the cabin is very quiet at speed) and returns fuel economy ratings of 10.1 L/100 km city (the SX rating is 9.3 litres) and 6.7 L/100 km highway (SX 6.8 litres). The new CVT equipped S, incidentally (which wasn't available to drive) does even better at 8.7L/100 km city and 6.3L/100 km highway.
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More impressive than the enhanced performance is the improvement in handling, although steering and brakes are unaltered and the suspension remains virtually identical to SX specs.
Shortened springs (of the same rate) account for the 10 mm ride height reduction and Sport-specific 18-inch alloy wheels (shod with the same P235/45R18 tires as the XS) are a bit lighter, but that's it, everything else is the same.
The Kizashi SX is being pitched hard by Suzuki as a sports sedan in an effort to claw out a niche for itself in a mid-size segment populated by well-established players and in which size not only matters but is increasing. The SX brought to this game all-wheel-drive, a full load of equipment and a unique style that draws looks from the sidewalk and other drivers, but at 4,650 mm is on the small side compared to, say the Mazda6, at 4,940 mm.
And truth be told the XS doesn't feel overtly "sporty" mostly due to the CVT transmission, although in handling terms it's competent and has sharper responses than many in the four-cylinder engined end of the category.
The Sport, however, feels much more responsive, corners more confidently and, according to my seat-of-the-pants sensors, rides noticeably more firmly. Hard enough to toss you about a bit on bumpy back roads, which might not suit everybody.
On a rain-slick ICAR track with puddles of standing water, and driven back-to-back with a number of name-brand mid-size competitors, the Kizashi Sport proved (a ringer Acura TSX aside) the winner, although arguably in a tie with the Mazda6.
It has crisper steering responses, confident transient behaviour, easily modulated brakes, about as good overall balance as you could expect from a front-driver and an electronic anti-skid system that's very effective, but not overly intrusive. As an aside: it was amazing how well all the vehicles tested performed, at pretty silly speeds under atrocious conditions, a tribute to modern car design.
The Sport comes with all the features standard in the XS - heated, power, leather seats, power sunroof, Rockford Fosgate audio system, Bluetooth, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, fog lights, steering wheel controls.
But it adds a few of its own - perforated leather covered wheel and shift knob with silver stitching (also on the seats), the unique alloy wheels mentioned above, a re-fashioned front fascia and lower grille, chrome fog lamp surrounds, re-shaped side sills and a neat slash of chrome side-garnish plus, of course, a mandatory rear spoiler.
Suzuki introduced its flagship Kizashi SX last spring as a 2011 model with all-wheel-drive and CVT standard along with that lengthy list of entry-level luxury features and a $29,999 price tag. The similarly equipped front-drive Kizashi Sport described here and the entry S will join it in Suzuki dealers' showrooms in early October with the Sport priced at $29,495 and the S at $25,995.
2011 Suzuki Kizashi Sport
Type: Mid-size sports sedan
Base Price: $29,495
Engine: 2.4 L, DOHC, I4.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Horsepower/torque: 185 hp/ 170 lb-ft.
Fuel economy: 10.1L/100 km city/ 6.7 L/100 km hwy (regular fuel).
Alternatives: Mazda6, Ford Fusion Sport, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Volkswagen Jetta, Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Camry.
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