Suzuki Forenza car reviews

Review Notes: 2005 Suzuki Forenza EX
Personality Comfortable cabin, buzzy engine
Unusual features Features for price
EPA gas mileage 22/30 (automatic)
Above Average Interior trim
Needs Work A/C power, low-end torque
Price $16,000 as tested; base $12,000
Notes Passed driveway scrape test; review by David Zatz

Sometimes, new cars can be very surprising, for better or for worse. Expecting the comfort and civility of a Corolla, the Matrix can seem harsh and cheap; but expecting the cost-cutting interior of a Focus or the ride of a Civic, the Suzuki Forenza seems especially well-made and comfortable.  What makes it even more remarkable is the low starting price of under $12,000.

 As with many new low-end cars, the Forenza sports an expensive-looking exterior which leads people to think it is much pricier. More interesting is the extent to the which the interior picks up cues from more expensive vehicles, such as Mercedes and new Chryslers, and executives them quite well. The general look of the dashboard is pleasing, with a chrome-style smooth plastic covering most surfaces, and textured grey and black panels covering the rest, in a scheme that is echoed on the doors. Tight tolerances keep it looking good, and we must admit we didn't hear a single squeak or rattle – putting it above even the Camry we recently tested.

The instrument panel features silver trim rings around the gauges for a luxury look, accented by an intelligent choice of typefaces and the large white-and-black speedometer. There are luxury cars that don't look this good.

The sheer number of conveniences and features in this $16,000 car (the top of the line EX model, which lists for $4,000 more than the base model) are astonishing. We can start with an unusually good stereo, featuring excellent stereo separation and both CD and cassette, built in equalizations for different types of music and voice as well as optional bass boosting and on-wheel controls, air, four-speed automatic, speed-sensitive steering, cruise, tilt steering, driver's seat height adjustment, leather, alloy wheels, fog lights, remote, power windows, locks, and mirrors, and moonroof. Topping off that rather amazing feature list is a 100,000 mile, seven year transferable powertrain warranty, roadside assistance, and free loaners for certain warranty repairs. Our fully loaded test car did not have, and did not need, a single option.

 Suzuki avoids the usual gimmicks of a steep destination charge – theirs is $0 – and overpriced floor mats – theirs are included. That's a sign of class.

You may ask how a Japanese automaker can do it. Well, Suzuki is owned by General Motors – and Suzuki owns Daewoo. The Forenza is made in Korea, with substantial components including the engine coming from Australia. Overall, 4% of the car is from North America, 73% from Korea, and 23% from Australia.

Given all these features, which could add up to thousands and thousands of dollars in an ordinary car, one might expect a harsh, buzzy ride, lots of wind noise, and an engine that can barely keep going. None of these are true. The ride is quite pleasant, similar to the Mitsubishi Lancer, and does an amazing job of smoothing out harsh and bumpy roads without over-insulating the driver. There's a sense of control which is refreshing after our experience with the cushy Camry, yet it's hard to find a street that can jar the passengers. What's more, most bumps don't give any audible feedback – no annoying subsonic boom. Few shocks will be strong enough to intrude.

Cornering does not appear to be compromised by the good ride. It's not a sports car, but it will handle anything most people throw at it, and it feels good doing it. Stability at speed is good.

Visibility is good in all directions, enhanced in bad weather by the standard (on EX) heated mirrors – which, incidentally, fold in when you need to free up a little more space or think there's a risk of having them taken off. The side windows have dedicated demisters, and an electric rear defroster and intermittent wipers are both standard. The wipers could cover a greater area on the passenger side, but that probably won't be a big issue; and the sun visors could be a little better designed. The gentle green backlighting is easy on the eyes and quite effective, without hurting visibility in twilight. Interior lighting is surprisingly good, with dual map lights up front and a dome light in middle.

Acceleration is not a strong spot, but it isn't too weak, either. The engine could use some updating – gas mileage of 22 city, 30 highway isn't bad, but it isn't great either; the V6 Camry is only one mile per gallon less, and there are many bigger, faster cars that do better, albeit not in this price range. The smog index is fairly good, meaning that this engine is relatively clean.

The Forenza feels fairly sprightly on city streets, but doesn't do as well in highway merges; the transmission is responsive, but the 2-liter engine needs to rev high to get quick acceleration, and it takes time to get there; then there's a sharp first-second drop, as the gap between gears makes itself known. Situations that left us wanting quicker takeoffs were fairly few, to be fair, and there's something to be said for the saying that it's more fun to drive fast in a slow car than to drive slowly in a fast car.  The Forenza is not slow, but it's also not going to be beating any Neons.

While the transmission shifts fairly smoothly and firmly, and is good at figuring out what gear to be in, we still advise drivers to go for the five-speed manual transmission to get the most out of their vehicle: it will increase gas mileage quite a bit while making acceleration faster. A manual transmission is probably the easiest power boost you can give to a car like this, but we don't think you can get it with the EX model.

The engine is not overly noisy, and idles fairly quietly, but it can be a little raucous on acceleration. Most people will not mind, but it is not a Camry engine, and will make itself known when you hit the throttle. The engine note clearly says "four-cylinder import," not "American muscle" or for that matter "four-cylinder Toyota." It's a matter of taste. We can't say we found it objectionable but, then again, we like to feel the road and hear the engine; we just don't want to be hurt by either one.

Aside from a less than ideally efficient engine, it's hard to figure out where Suzuki economized in making the Forenza EX. The power trunk release is unusual in this price class, as is an express open feature for the power moonroof and the driver's window. The moonroof even has a vented sliding cover, so you can tilt the moonroof open and slide the cover shut, avoiding the sun's rays while letting hot air escape; and the moonroof has a screen pattern to block out harsh direct sunlight. Aside from the clearly mechanical vent switch, all the controls have a good quality feel (we do have to note that the Forenza has separate horn buttons on either side of the airbag, which no doubt saves a few dollars). The key goes into a switch with a lighted ring that looks better than just about any competing ignition switch, including those used by Toyota and Volkswagen. Just about the only places we can see overt frugality are the simply cupholder, the horn buttons, rather small sun visors, firm seats, and a single visible trim screw (not that we have anything against seeing trim screws, by the way – it certainly makes it easier on mechanics!).

Interior space is neither generous nor cramped, reflecting the increasing size of entry-level cars; it seems roomier than the previous-generation Corolla. Up front it certainly is spacious, with good headroom even when the seat is raised to the highest level; in back, legroom is moderately tight, though it seems more generous than the past-generation Corolla. The only way to tell how easily you fit is to try it out. Entry to the back seats is easy, and once there, occupants have their own door speakers (standard) to help with stereo imaging, their own map pockets on the doors and the back of the front seats, and a fold-out center armrest with integrated cupholders – all features often lacking in considerably more expensive cars. An ashtray folds out of the back of the front center console. Our only complaint is that it's a bit hard to put in LATCH car seats, but this is something that doesn't have to be done very often. The rear LATCH mounts have flip-up covers that won't be lost, and are directly behind the seats they serve.

The front cup holders are simple, but there really is only a one-cup capacity: a pair of openings share a single flipping template which holds a cup quite firmly (if it's the right size). The rear cup holders are also simple, but there are two of them. A sunglass holder above the driver's door is a clever and unusual feature.

A large area under the center console includes a power outlet and space for whatever stuff you keep around: shaver, power adapter, EZ-Pass. The power adapter there and the cigarette lighter are both keyed to the ignition: take out the key, and you lose the power. There is no power memory: everything shuts off when the key comes out. In addition, as in past Korean-designed vehicles, the power locks operate all at once when you use the remote, which is fine for most people, but those who use low-security parking areas may have some concern. (Of course, you can always use the actual mechanical key.)

The stereo is large, with big buttons and a big, clear display. Our main complaint is that the steps on the volume control are fairly large as well. Built-in equalization curves cover several types of music as well as voice, and bass, treble, balance, and fade are all done by pressing a SOUND button and then using the volume control. There's a bass-boost feature, which can be shut off at the press of a button; we like this system better than those stereos which keep bass boosted all the time, making voice more annoying than audible. Switching from mode to mode is done via individual buttons for each mode. This is one stereo that was apparently tested on humans, rather than being designed and produced without any end-user testing.

 The climate control system is also easy to use, and is tuned to be fairly quiet except at the highest setting. The air conditioning is not especially strong but we appreciate the separate a/c control. The tiny sun visors do include mirrors (with flip-up covers and ticket-holders built in).

Given Suzuki's relationship with General Motors, it should come as no surprise that the Suzuki Forenza is equipped with daytime running lights (even the Corolla has these, because GM sold a version as the Prizm). In another standard-GM vein, a light labeled "DRL" (daytime running lights) remains lit unless you turn the headlights on. At least they labeled the switch more sensibly – GM vehicles tend to just have a little headlight pictogram, which lights up when the headlights are off. We suspect we'd yank out the bulb…we'd also prefer to eliminate the DRL entirely except in Canada, where it's mandatory.  

Cruise control is handled by short-travel buttons on the wheel, with an on/off button that keeps its setting from trip to trip, and no "cancel" button – if you want to temporarily go off cruise, you need to hit the brake. The wheel also has simple stereo controls: power, mode, radio-station seek, and volume up/down. As we noted earlier, the horn buttons themselves are small and mounted on either side of the wheel. The horn itself gives a meek small-car sound. Horns are easy to replace.

Unlike many pricier cars, the Forenza has both a remote gas cap release and a power trunk release. Both are easy to find and to reach with the door closed.

The gated transmission shifter echoes those of more expensive cars, and we can't say we like them much there, either, but one does get used to them. The EX includes a HOLD button, which keeps the transmission either in a gear or in a range of gears, according to a moderately complicated algorithm which "lets you shift for yourself." Like the AutoStick, we suspect it will go unused 99% of the time, but it can be handy in some situations. The gear you've chosen shows up both on the mechanical shifter, and also on the odometer in a single large letter.

The trunk is surprisingly roomy; underneath the carpet is a spacious bay for the full-size spare and tools, with room for other emergency equipment you may care to add – flares, jumper cables, and such. Unfortunately, you have to take everything out of the trunk to get to that compartment, because it's covered by an oversized board – but the same is true for the Toyota Camry. The equipment bay is well organized and the board is supported to hold real weight. The back seats fold down for increased storage.

Overall, the Forenza is a surprisingly likeable and enjoyable car, offered at an amazingly good price. If you're not into straight-line performance, seek out a Suzuki dealer. With an interior that easily beats the Ford Focus, a fun quotient that beats the Corolla, and value that Hyundai must envy, the Suzuki Forenza should be on your short list.