What was tested?: 2010 Suzuki Kizashi SLS Automatic ($26,749).
Price as tested (including $735 destination charge): $27,484.
Pros: It's among the world's best compact cars, with European-inspired performance, style and sophistication
Cons: You'll constantly be answering the question, "You drive a Suzuki what?"
Let's face it. People don't buy a Suzuki because they're looking for the very best car. They buy a Suzuki because of the price.
The company's lineup has long reflected this, with cars and SUVs that were a good value but didn't quite match the quality and refinement of other Japanese brands like Honda and Toyota.
Now Suzuki is trying to change that by building a great little car with a funny name.
The new Suzuki Kizashi -- yes, Kizashi -- is at least as good as the all-star Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics it competes with, so let's get that out of the way right now. It's a true, world-class car.
But what makes the Kizashi so great, and how did Suzuki manage to make it feel so different from its previous lineup of built-for-a-price commuter cars?
The answer lies in the cars Suzuki's engineers tried to emulate. Instead of trying to mimic the Corolla and Civic, they leapfrogged all the way to European sports compacts like the Audi A3, giving the Kizashi a thoroughly European look and feel.
In fact, once you've driven the Kizashi -- with its silent ride, perfect suspension and meaty acceleration -- you could easily mistake it for an Audi. It's just a step above more mundane cars.
The heart of the Kizashi, like all great cars, lies under the hood. It has a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 185 horsepower, which is more than most mid-size cars offer in base trim. And the Kizashi is a compact car, so the power is really noticeable when you step on the gas.
Not only does it have a lot of speed, but it also has plenty of panache. There's a smoothness to this car -- a sense of sophistication and precision -- that's a total surprise for something with a Suzuki badge. It feels luxurious without being too gimicky.
That premium feel comes from a combination of a lot of little things, like ambient lighting in the footwell, a soft woven headliner, and soft-touch materials all over the dash.
Another surprise is that the Kizashi offers all-wheel drive, something exceptionally rare in this class. Normally, if you want a small car with all-wheel drive, you'd either have to pick a Subaru or something expensive from Europe.
This car's European feel is echoed in its body, which is more expressive and original than anything else in Suzuki's stable. It looks lean and athletic, and two stylish exhaust pipes exit the rear end to emphasize its performance credentials.
Pricing is still a strong point on this car. The base model starts under $19,000, while the top-of-the-line SLS with an automatic transmission and all-wheel drive costs $26,749.
There's really not much to dislike about the Kizashi. Compared to most of its competition, it performs better, looks better, is quieter and more refined. And, if you're concerned about the quality of a Suzuki, it comes with a great warranty.
Oh yeah, about that name? In Japanese, it means "something great is coming."
It's a funny word, but it couldn't be more appropriate.