Small-car masters Suzuki hushed the critics by producing a mid-size vehicle to rival or better anything in its class, writes Alastair Sloane Suzuki has spent more than $2 billion on developing the Kizashi, which the company hopes will help it gain a foothold in the mid-size market.

Suzuki's greatest strength was its weakness when it sat down to plot a way into the New Zealand market for its first mid-sized global sedan, the Kizashi.

The Japanese company was a bike, small-car and SUV specialist, had been since day one. Now it had a medium-sized sedan to sell. Not just a four-door but a "world-class premium" four-door with "driving dynamics to match the best of Europe".

It needed a gimmick, something that hadn't been done before, a way to draw attention to its move into a new segment.

Marketing manager Tom Peck and chief executive Bill Grice got together with Suzuki NZ advertising agency Promotus to target Air New Zealand and the business sector.

The result was new ground for the ad industry: the Suzuki and Kizashi brand printed across the bottom of every e-ticket issued by Air NZ, along with Kizashi brochures in Koru lounges and Koru car parks.

The agreement with Air NZ was for two months. "Kizashi is an unknown product and most people do not associate Suzuki with the word premium," Peck said at the car's launch in June.

"But we have a high brand profile in New Zealand at present and the best-ever market share. We want to take advantage of that."

Six months on, the Kizashi is the New Zealand Herald Car of the Year for 2010. "Suzuki New Zealand and our parent company in Japan are delighted with the Herald award," says Peck. "The Kizashi is our first entry into the mid-size segment, the product of a very large investment by Suzuki Motor Corporation.

"It spent four years developing and testing the Kizashi around the world. The result is a sedan that can compete in finish, design, handling, safety, comfort and performance with premium cars costing twice as much."

Suzuki NZ had sold 350 Kizashi models to the end of November, an average of nearly 60 units a month. It aimed to sell 50 a month from June.

Kizashi is a Japanese word meaning "prelude" or "foretaste". The name symbolises the change within Suzuki as it seeks to further expand its model range across 190-odd countries and beyond 3.2 million annual sales.

Before Kizashi it had nothing to offer Suzuki loyalists, those who had gone from one hatchback to another. Now it has. Kizashi also enables Suzuki to show off its technological knowhow.

Suzuki began work on the Kizashi in 2004, setting out to combine sporty handling with ride comfort, a mix of the best of Japan and Europe. All up, it spent more than $2 billion on development.

A constant challenge for development engineers was skepticism inside and outside Suzuki about whether they could produce such a car. But the doubts only inspired them, says the company. The car so far has received high praise worldwide, especially for its driveability.

Price isn't bad either - $35,990 for the GLX six-speed manual, $37,990 for the GLX automatic with CVT, and $42,990 for the leather-lined LTD automatic with CVT - nor are equipment and safety levels.

That's not the only head start - go-fast tests on a wet track at Hampton Downs and a run on good and bad roads showed that Kizashi engineers got it right: ride/handling sets a new standard for mid-size Japanese models, with dynamics that are clearly the best in class.

The Kizashi is refined, quiet, and comfortable, its cabin oozing attention to detail and offering impressive leg and shoulder room for four adults front and rear. It is well designed with quality soft-skin touches throughout. Road noise is well suppressed.

The four-door is powered by a revised version of the 2.4-litre petrol engine from the Grand Vitara mated to either a manual six-speed or continuously variable automatic.

The four-cylinder unit delivers 131kW at 6500rpm and 230Nm at 4000rpm, allowing a top speed of 204km/h and a zero to 100km/h sprint upwards of seven seconds.

Fuel economy is a claimed 7.9 litres/100km, although it is not hard to squeeze 7 litres/100km out of the car from its 63-litre fuel tank.

The car rides on a McPherson strut set-up in front and a multi-link rear. The GLX sits in 17-inch rims, the LTD on 18s. Suzuki claims the rigid steel unibody forms the basis for the fine handling and smooth ride.

Akebono, the company that provides the braking system for the Japanese Bullet train, supplies the brakes for the Kizashi, ventilated front discs and solid rear discs.