- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Suzuki, a Japanese company once known mainly for motorcycles, small SUVs and outboard motors, is sneaking up on the car-buying public, thanks to substantial help from South Korea.

With the addition of two new Korean-built cars, Suzuki now has a decent lineup of both automobiles and sport utility vehicles — all with extended warranties and prices to entice budget-minded buyers.

On the SUV side, there are the Vitara, the Grand Vitara and the XL-7. On the car side, Suzuki already had the Japanese-built Aerio sedan and SX sport wagon. Now they have been joined by the Verona, a midsize sedan designed to compete with the likes of the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The latest offering is the Suzuki Forenza, aimed at the compact class populated by the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cavalier.

Both the Verona and Forenza are built by Daewoo of South Korea, which tried to crack the U.S. market but failed. The company eventually was bought by General Motors, which also owns part of Suzuki. Daewoo’s cars were the subcompact Lanos, the compact Nubira and the midsize Leganza. The Forenza, with European styling by famed Pininfarina of Italy, is a new rendition of the Nubira.

From a consumer standpoint, the biggest advantage of Korean-built cars is low labor costs, which translates into unexpected bang for the buck. The base Forenza S, for example, carries a suggested sticker price of $12,999. That includes air conditioning, an eight-speaker stereo with CD and cassette player, steering-wheel remote audio controls, speed-sensitive power steering, power windows and locks, motorized and heated outside mirrors, a tachometer and a rear-window defroster.

The tested top-of-the-line EX, with a sticker of $16,499, was as well equipped as some luxury cars, with all the foregoing plus a four-speed automatic transmission, leather upholstery, alloy wheels, cruise control, fog lights, remote keyless locking and disc brakes on all four wheels.

However, antilock brakes are not part of the package. They are a $500 option. Side air bags are not available.

Generally speaking, in the past the rap on Korean cars has been a shortage of quality in materials and construction. But generally the cars have been getting better as the manufacturers seek footholds in the United States, with sales to prove it.

To ease any prospective owner anxiety on that score, Suzuki offers a 100,000-mile, seven-year warranty on the engine and transaxle. That’s in addition to the standard three-year, 36,000-mile overall warranty, which also includes free roadside assistance.

There were no blatant quality problems on the tested Forenza EX. It was tight and quiet, with no squeaks or rattles. Obviously, the quality pales some compared to industry leaders such as Honda and Toyota, but it’s not bad given the price.

The only slight glitch in the test car was an intermittent slip and catch in the automatic transmission when moving off from a stop. It may have been an anomaly on the test car.

Overall, the Forenza EX performed admirably. It gets its power to the front wheels from a 119-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The transmission uses a slotted shifter similar to that on some luxury cars.

Though it won’t win many stoplight drag races, the Forenza has good low-end torque for getting a jump off the line. The engine gets noisy under hard acceleration, but settles down and cruises quietly on the highway.

The Forenza’s ride is harsh on rough surfaces, but the stiff settings on the all-independent suspension system translate into fairly precise handling that is as good as that of most of the economy sedans out there.

Inside, the front bucket seats afford reasonable comfort and good support, though they’re fairly flat, without much side-to-side bolstering. Instruments and controls are typically Japanese (and Korean), which is to say they’re ergonomically correct, and easy to see and use.

The interior appears nicely designed, with a pebble-grain finish on the top of the dash, as well as silver and faux-aluminum accents on the instruments, dash, doors and console. In a surprising touch for an economy car, there’s a push-button solenoid release inside for the trunk instead of the usual cable setup. The remote-control locking device also has a trunk-release button — a feature not often seen on low-budget cars.

With 95 cubic feet of passenger space, the Forenza is at the upper end of the compact class, as defined by the government. As a result, there’s enough room for a couple of 6-footers in the outboard positions in back.

The center position, as usual, should only be used for penitents who are into self-flagellation. The rear seatbacks fold for extra cargo carrying, enhancing the trunk’s generous 12 cubic feet of volume.

For somebody who wants all the bells and whistles but can’t afford more than about $16,000 for a new car, the Forenza certainly is tempting.

However, there’s a lot of competition out there, including cars with high-quality track records — albeit with shorter lists of standard equipment. If the Forenza’s quality holds up, word of mouth likely will be enough to insure some success.

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