Its predecessors are about as forgettable as almost any Seth Green movie. Verona, Forenza and Aerio are the names of Suzuki cars, not Italian fashion designers.

About the best that could be said about them is that they had distinctive names.

So does Suzuki’s newest offering, the 2010 Kizashi (pronounced kee-zah-shee). But unlike its predecessors, Kizashi stands out for its performance, styling and quality as much as its name.

It’s tough to do that in the Kizashi’s class. Although it is a bit smaller than most competitors, Suzuki considers Kizashi a midsize sedan. That’s the most competitive class in America, led by perennial best sellers such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

There are enough other terrific midsize sedans to fill a paragraph.

Suffice it to say that with a smaller dealership network, fewer marketing dollars and less name recognition than nearly all of its competitors, Suzuki might as well be trying to cut its piece of the midsize sedan pie with a scalpel.

But it’s a very sharp one. Based on my one-week test drive, the Kizashi slices and dices its competitors in many ways. So much so that anyone shopping for a midsize sedan should definitely pay a visit to the nearest Suzuki dealer before making a buying decision.

Buyers will be hard pressed to find a better value. The starting price of a Kizashi S, the least expensive of four models, is just $18,999. That price includes items seldom found on an entry level model: Keyless entry and ignition, dual-zone auto climate control and an AM/FM/CD player with steering wheel controls and USB jack.

The standard equipment list also includes four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, anti-skid system, power windows with one-touch front up and down, tilt/telescope steering wheel, power mirrors and a trip computer.

My test car was a GTS, two rungs and $3,500 up on the Kizashi trim-level ladder. Its starting price of $22,499 adds a bunch of goodies: Power moonroof, fog lights, stunning 18-inch alloy wheels, a 10-way power driver’s seat with three memory settings, and a sweet-sounding, 425-watt Rockford Fosgate 10-speaker audio system with Bluetooth hands-free cell phone and music connectivity (it can wirelessly play songs stored on your phone).

Those starting prices are for Kizashi models with six-speed manual transmissions. The only automatic offered is a continuously variable design (CVT). The automatic adds $1,500 to the cost of a Kizashi S and $1,100 to the cost of a GTS or top-of-the-line SLS.

The SE model, rung No. 2 on the Kizashi ladder, starts at $21,499 and is available only with an automatic.

Suzuki offers all-wheel drive as a $1,250 option on all Kizashi models equipped with an automatic transmission. Several competitors also offer an AWD option, but not on all models. (All-wheel drive is standard equipment, however, on all Subaru Legacy and Impreza models.)

My Kizashi GTS test car didn’t have all-wheel drive or an automatic transmission. But its six-speed manual transmission seemed so well suited to the car’s personality that I’m not sure I’d want an automatic in my Kizashi.

The manual made the Kizashi, which is powered by a 2.4-liter, 185-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, fun to drive. It helped me find the engine’s power sweet spot whether I was pulling hard out of a tight corner, passing on the interstate or pulling away from a stoplight.

The manual’s clutch is superb, with smooth and linear take-up and just the right amount of pedal effort. The gear ratios seem superbly matched to the engine’s performance, and the shifter has a nice, short throw.

My one quibble is with the shift linkage gates, which were vague enough that I sometimes selected the wrong gear during quick shifts.

I don’t have even the slightest complaint, however, about the Kizashi’s engine. It is punchy, responsive and admirably refined. During a pair of 425-mile highway trips, the engine simply astounded me with its luxury car-like quietness and smoothness.

The engine is so silky, in fact, that there were several times during full-throttle romps that it hit the rev limiter because I failed to realize how fast it was spinning. That’s the kind of mistake I sometimes make when driving a six-cylinder BMW.

Kizashi doesn’t have the power of competitors’ six-cylinder offerings (Suzuki is rumored to be mulling a V6 for the Kizashi), but I was nevertheless able to clock zero-to-60 times in the mid-seven second range. That’s pretty good for its class.

I also never had a problem with the Kizashi’s passing power on the interstate.

Given its spunk, I was very surprised see that the Kizashi’s trip computer registered over 28 miles per gallon during a week of testing that included mostly highway miles. The test car’s EPA rating of 20 city/29 highway mpg is the lowest of all Kizashi configurations. The highest is 23/31 for a front-wheel drive Kizashi with automatic transmission and 16-inch tires.

I’m not sure how the smaller tires would compare in comfort and performance to the low-profile (235/45R18) rubber on my test car, which delivered both tenacious grip and a comfortable ride.

Suzuki’s goal while developing the Kizashi was to give it the ride and handling characteristics of an upscale sport-touring sedan. One of its launch promotions was a “test drive challenge” that offered $100 to anyone who test-drove a Kizashi and then purchased an Audi A4 or Acura TSX.

That sounded crazy to me until I drove the Kizashi. I was blown away with the sense of stability, refinement and solidity it delivered, particularly during high-speed stretches of highway driving.

Like the A4 and TSX, it’s also fun to drive. Its steering is quick, accurate, and nicely weighted with good on-center road feel. It lacks the torque steer and vagueness found in some competitors. Well-controlled rebounding and body roll inspire confidence on rough surfaces and in tight turns and sweeping curves.

The Kizashi’s resemblance to upscale touring sedans doesn’t end with its handling traits. Its interior fit and finish is remarkable given the Kizashi’s starting price. Its seats are supportive and comfortable, and there’s a sense of spaciousness inside that belies the sedan’s relatively small dimensions.

There is nothing small about Suzuki’s aspirations for the Kizashi, which the company states was “designed and engineered to offer a premium driving experience consistent with the near-luxury sport sedan segment.”

I’ve read similar claims before, but seldom found them to be validated. Based on my evaluation of the Kizashi, however, Suzuki appears to have succeeded. The company now has a car that should be as memorable as its name. 

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Maine Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at:

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