It is the biggest manufacturer in India by far - the one with the best products, widest range, unrivalled service network, best aftersales service, best quality and it is consistently rated at the top of customer satisfaction surveys. Yet Maruti Suzuki, as we all know, has singularly failed in selling an expensive car. Forget the Grand Vitara (that's conspicuous by its absence on our roads), even the SX4 (despite better pricing) hasn't worried the Honda City. What is it then? Products? No big diesel engines? Brand Maruti Suzuki isn't premium enough to warrant big monies? You could put it down to a combination of all three but the main concern has always been on the product front and apart from a few rebadged GM cars Suzuki didn't have a half decent car in its portfolio to bring down to India.
All that changes with the Kizashi. It is Suzuki's first attempt at a car of this size and is built primarily for the American market where it's tasked with doing what the Swift did in other markets - reinvent Suzuki and turn its fortunes around. A hugely important model then, and one that incorporates all of their learnings of the recent past, particularly the Swift. It is also the first car in this segment to be billed as a sporty saloon with a focus more on people who will be driving rather than being driven and that places it in a unique position. After all in a country where even Nanos are chauffeur-driven you're not going to see too many owners behind the wheel of their Superbs and Accords.
It's the latter that Maruti has benchmarked the Kizashi against and keeps bringing up in any conversation or presentation. But we don't have an Accord here. We don't need an Accord here because it is not the segment benchmark any more. Ever since the Superb was launched last year Honda, once the undisputed leader, has fallen off the charts. There is a new face-lifted Accord (page 78) but we don't expect the new grille and alloys to make much difference to sales.
So the Kizashi faces off against the Superb which is ` 1.6lakh more expensive. But at the other end the Laura is ` 3.5lakhs cheaper than the Kizashi. Neatly stuck between the Skoda sandwich then is the Kizashi. The big question is: can it carve out a niche for itself?
I'll be honest - I was a bit skeptical about the Kizashi taking on the Superb and the main reason for it is she looks deceptively small. In the pictures it's almost like a Laura rival but put all three together and it's evident the Kizashi slots neatly between the two. It's clearly bigger than the Laura and equally not as big as the Superb, both externally and inside.
What the Kizashi also has going against it is the general styling direction which firmly follows the SX4 direction. From a distance I've had many say it looks like a beefed up SX4 and that puts a spoke in Maruti's plans to go upmarket (though to be fair all premium manufacturers have a strong family look running through their range so why shouldn't Suzuki). A third problem: the Kizashi is available only in three colours - white, black and silver - and the white of our test car is the least sporty colour for what's billed as a sporty car. Making it stand out in pictures is a particularly daunting task as all the details get killed and it's the details, when viewed from up close, that gives it a sporty flair. This is particularly evident from the rear with the stubby boot, integrated spoiler, wrap-around tail lamps and twin exhausts that have an eye-catching superbike-ish shape to the end piece. The nose with the Audi-esque outline to the grille has nice hints of muscle which goes well with the soft and flowing lines lending a nice fluency to the design which is a world away from the staid rump of the Superb.
At least the Superb gets premium-ish colors that gives it an upmarket air but is it a great looking car? In profile it looks awkwardly stretched out in the middle (which it is; based on a stretched Passat platform) with a long passenger cabin and short boot while the nose though distinctive and instantly recognizable isn't what you'd call traditionally good looking. The boot though has a clever trick where it opens like a conventional boot or a notchback but it's a trick you'll find being employed more by Czech taxi drivers than company CEOs. The latter though will absolutely love the interiors which are… superb. The design, layout, ergonomics, materials, textures, finish, everything is extraordinarily good for a car of this price and it feels properly posh and luxurious. The seats, particularly upfront, are snug and sporty and the steering wheel warrants a mention - a small diameter, thick rimmed wheel with sporty grips and paddles for the DSG gearbox. The business end of things is at the back where there's acres of space and knee room than luxury cars like the E-Class or 5 Series. It might make it look awkwardly stretched from the outside but the trade-off in interior space and comfort is well worth it.
The Laura, obviously, cannot hope to come anywhere close to the Superb in terms of interior space. This is after all a different class of car and is also that much cheaper. However there are clear signs of the Skoda DNA in the way the dash is put together, its quality, panel gaps and general materials. In its class the Laura still lays down the benchmark and it looks, feels very good. Space
at the back, though, is snug, hampered slightly by the dropping notchback profile and the seat back too is a bit too upright for comfort over long distances. But there's an enormous boot that's easily accessed via the trademark notchback.
So where does the Kizashi slot? It'll be stupid to dismiss the Suzuki - it has more space, better material quality, more flair to the design and far more comfortable seats than the Laura - but that's to be expected. What's unexpected is how close it runs the Superb. The rear seat space isn't as massive but the seats are nice and cushy and not even a giant will feel cramped here, helped by the fact that the beige colour scheme adds to the feeling of airiness. The materials used, like the soft touch plastics on the top of the dash have a premium touch to it but then it is let down by the hard plastics of the central console that looks like they've come straight off the SX4. The screen too is small with outdated fonts especially when compared to the Superb's touch screen that even includes a display for the parking sensors.
What I found bizarre on the Kizashi were the gradations on the speedo and rev counter. Remember the protractors we used in school with their intricate markings to measure 45.5-degree angles? The dials are just like that. And for a sporty saloon the steering should really have been like the Superb's.
Equipment levels of the Kizashi include keyless entry and ignition (the only one with it), USB input for the (rather good) stereo, six airbags (Superb gets 8), ABS, electronic stability program and 17-inch alloys (the largest in this test) shod with sticky Yokohamas. No parking sensors though. The trip computer also isn't as comprehensive as the Superb's.
The Kizashi gets the all-aluminium 2.4-litre four-cylinder powertrain from the Grand Vitara which makes 178PS of power (down from 185 in America) and 230Nm of torque and is mated to a six-speed manual transmission. It's an utterly smooth and creamy engine, very refined and with - surprisingly for a Suzuki motor - strong low end grunt. Stick it in fifth gear and it pulls willingly and strongly, never uttering a whisper but when you do floor it she revs to her 6500rpm redline with an urgency that does the Suzuki name proud. On our acceleration tests she hit the 100kmph mark in 9.43 seconds which makes it the quickest car in this class. The 6-speed manual is a lovely gearbox though for an additional lakh of rupees you can get a CVT automatic transmission. CVTs though are way behind the curve these days and the characteristic rubber-band effect where the engine revs are held at the peak when the car is being hustled along can get extremely tiresome (particularly since at the top of the rev range the engine gets pretty noisy). It also saps a lot of power with the 0-100kmph sprint dropping down to 10.34 seconds though on the plus side the fuel efficiency drop is barely anything with the ARAI figure dropping to 12.53kmpl from 12.45kmpl.
The Skodas come to the party with downsized petrol engines, 1.8-litre direct-injection petrols with a turbo-charger boosting power to 162PS. On paper that might look like the Kizashi will run away from the other two but such is the brilliance of that 1.8 TSI engine that despite the Superb being over 100kg heavier the 0-100kmph time is just two-tenths slower. The turbo-petrol also has more life, is a more enjoyable engine to pedal along, is more refined and has better low down grunt giving the car greater flexibility and affording easier overtaking. Plus the Superb gets the brilliant twin-clutch DSG gearbox which completely and utterly demolishes the Kizashi's CVT with its lightning
The 1.8 TSI in a similar state of tune also finds its way into the Laura and taking advantage of its lighter kerb weight she posts a 0-100kmph time of 8.32 seconds. The Kizashi might be billed as a sporty alternative in this segment but it is the Laura that provides the fireworks, absolutely smoking its fronts and being tremendous fun to drive. All the fizz of a turbo-petrol finds greater resonance in the Laura and it makes full use of those blown horses to entertain the driver.
Downsizing also has benefits at the pump with the Superb's ARAI fuel efficiency being much superior at 13.67kml (with the DSG gearbox) while the Laura with a manual transmission has an efficiency of 13.37kmpl.
It's the same story here. The Laura is lighter, faster, smaller and more fun to drive. The chassis balance and compromise between ride and handling is spot-on and she is terrific fun to punt down a set of twisties. The steering is also responsive and there's great communication allowing the Laura to be placed accurately and confidently while carrying great speed. There is noticeable body roll but it is never excessive and there is a little more understeer than the other cars in its class like the Jetta but thanks to the smaller 15-inch wheels (versus 16s before - the main reason for the slight reduction in grip) the ride quality is pretty good.
Keeping with its luxury focus the Superb offers an exemplary ride which works well both at low and high speeds, cushioning passengers and making the back seat a very comfortable place from where to catch
up on the pink papers. That's not to say the handling is compromised with the steering being quite direct and the chassis responsive. However there is appreciable body roll and when pushed hard the Superb settles into gentle understeer.
And so here too the Kizashi treads a nice middle line. It isn't as fizzy and enthusiastic as the Laura but neither does it roll or understeer as much as the Superb. In fact the chassis has a sporty edge to it and at low speeds over the regular undulations of our city roads feels a bit stiff; never uncomfortable but there's that deliberately sporty edge to it. At speed the ride improves and she not only proves to be very comfortable but also stays very composed and stable over dips and undulations with none of that bobbing and squishy sensation of the suspension running out of travel and bottoming out that you get in big Japanese saloons.
Which hints at fun times in the twisties and here she proves surprisingly able. For a big comfy front-wheel-drive saloon there's good front end bite, the roll is well contained, and she doesn't feel ponderous through a set of switchbacks. This whole sporty thing I thought was just marketing spiel but get behind the wheel and hustle it along and it all comes together very well, the Kizashi proving to be capable and engaging. If only the steering had a little more enthusiasm in it the Suzuki would have run the Laura very close.
The question we started off with was whether the Kizashi fills the gap between the Laura and Superb and the answer is 'yes', in size, spec, capabilities and performance. In fact on most counts it is actually closer to the Superb than the Laura. In this trio the small Skoda is not only a fair bit cheaper (nearly four lakh rupees) but also feels it (equipment, refinement, quality, sophistication). For thrills and driver involvement the Laura is the one to take home but if you have the money and want back seat comfort, give the Laura a miss.
On price the Kizashi presents a compelling alternative to the Superb. On the manual front the Kizashi is ` 1.6 lakh cheaper while on automatics it is ` 2 lakh cheaper. And you don't miss out on anything with the Suzuki - it looks better, is better to drive, has a lovely (though thirstier engine), is very comfortable and (apart from parking sensors) is fully loaded. It really is a sign of great things to come (which is what Kizashi, loosely translated, means). So why isn't the Superb worried? Because it does the most important things better. Its interiors are a class apart, the sense of luxury, quality and expensive materials is unparalleled, the DSG gearbox is way superior to the CVT, the space at the back is humongous and let's face it, most CEOs are driven to work and back seat comfort always gets priority.
But the biggest thing that the Kizashi lacks is a diesel engine and both the Skodas get excellent common-rail diesel engines. The fact is without a diesel in this segment
at best you can play from the sidelines - ask Honda and Toyota. And that's why despite ticking all the right boxes the Superb will still rest easy.