- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

There are few vehicles more endearing and practical than the small station wagon.

Done correctly, a small station wagon offers a low initial price, comfort for four, load space that betters that of a large luxury car, decent fuel economy and ease of parking and handling. For all those reasons, small wagons are popular in Europe, where fuel and purchase taxes are higher than in the United States. Why they have struggled for acceptance here is a mystery somewhere deep in the psyche of American buyers, who unaccountably and overwhelmingly prefer SUVs and traditional sedans.

As a result, there are only a few small wagons available. One of them is the Suzuki Forenza, introduced in the 2005 model year and revamped slightly for 2006. It’s a classic and, some would say, classy-looking small wagon that carries the Japanese manufacturer’s name but actually is built by Daewoo of South Korea. Other Daewoo models with Suzuki badges are the Reno and the Verona.

Daewoo once tried to sell its own cars in the U.S. But a series of misfortunes drove it out of the country and into the arms of General Motors. Now it sells its cars to Suzuki and Chevrolet (the Aveo).

Though the situation is changing, the South Korean advantage has been low production costs, resulting in more features for the money on cars built there. The downside has been spotty quality. The latter, however, was not evident on the tested Forenza wagon, which looked all of a piece, with no evidence of poor fit and finish, or shoddy materials.

However, because of consumer wariness about quality, Suzuki adopted a warranty policy similar to those offered by Hyundai and Kia. It consists of three-year, 36,000-mile coverage on the entire car, and seven years and 100,000 miles on the engine and drivetrain.

The test car was a Forenza wagon with a four-speed automatic transmission and the premium package, which included a decent level of equipment at a sticker price of $17,179.

In an attempt to simplify the lineup, Suzuki offers just two versions for 2006: a base model and one with a premium package, both available as sedans as well as wagons. Leather upholstery is no longer offered.

The base Forenza wagon, available with a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission, starts with a sticker price of $14,979 and comes with side air bags, antilock brakes, air conditioning, power windows and locks, heated outside mirrors, an eight-speaker audio system with CD changer and 15-inch steel wheels.

With the test car’s premium package, the equipment included electronic brake force distribution, 15-inch alloy wheels, remote locking, cruise control, steering-wheel audio controls, a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, and fog lights.

The 2-liter four-cylinder engine, built in Australia, is rated at 126 horsepower, which is enough to afford respectable, though far from exciting, performance. The Forenza does not feel challenged in everyday traffic, though the engine emits raucous sounds under hard acceleration, and there is some interior resonance and vibration at idle.

The EPA rates fuel economy at 20 miles per gallon city and 28 on the highway, which is not outstanding in this class.

The cargo area is nicely finished, and features hideaway storage under the floor and in two side compartments — not unlike what you would find on the $37,000 Jaguar X-Type Sportwagon.

On the road, the Forenza wagon handles capably, thanks to an all-independent-suspension system and speed-sensitive power steering. It tracks true in a straight line and can negotiate corners at fairly high speeds without feeling tippy.

The front seats are supportive and comfortable, and the back seat has room for 6-footers in the outboard seating positions.

There are even a couple of luxury-car touches, including the remote audio controls on the steering wheel and a slotted shift gate for the automatic transmission. The shifter feels a bit crude, but works fine.

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