American Suzuki Motor Corp. has seen a dramatic change of fortune.

Hitting a company high of 101,884 units in the U.S. in 2007, sales fell 16.7% last year and are down 55% this year compared with like-2008.

All the more reason the new '10 Kizashi midsize sedan needs to be a hit. After a recent drive in Chapel Hill, NC, Ward's finds the car to be the best Suzuki yet and a worthy competitor for existing midsize sedans with performance leanings.

However, the Kizashi has some drawbacks. Suzuki believes the car will appeal to those desiring a “sportier” and “sexier” midsize sedan, as well as those who typically buy certified pre-owned luxury sport sedans such as the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Acura TSX and Lexus IS.

Suzuki has a shot with the first targeted group, not so much the second.

The Kizashi could get a second look from buyers shopping the similarly oriented Nissan Altima or Mazda6.

But a buyer desiring a luxury brand, used or not, isn't going to be satisfied with the ambiguous steering, tension-less clutch pedal and flimsy shifter of the 6-speed manual SLS model.

And the car's generic styling and hard-plastic interior, although well done, can't match the upscale competition.

While called a midsize sedan, the Kizashi actually is shorter than most entrants in that group. At 183.1 ins. (465 cm), the car is 7.6 ins. (19 cm) shorter than the Altima and falls a whopping 10.6 ins. (27 cm) short of the Mazda6.

The Kizashi's wheelbase of 106.3 ins. (270 cm) also lags the competition.

But the Kizashi is surprisingly spacious inside, especially in the rear of the cabin, where passengers often suffer in models with similar dimensions.

Suzuki would do well to tout this fact in ads, as many consumers quickly will write off a model so much smaller than the competition, assuming cramped back seats.

Engineers spent considerable time perfecting the car's ride and handling, driving it on Germany's famed Nurburgring racetrack. The sedan boasts a rigid steel unibody, with reinforced front suspension and a 5-link rear setup.

Suzuki says this “allows for crisp, nimble handling with excellent stability.” Most of the time it does.

Zig-zagging on a road near the Virginia border, the Kizashi loses some composure, giving way to moderate-heavy body lean. The light steering seems unable to keep pace with the sharp turns.

More enjoyable is the GTS model, with a continuously variable transmission and optional all-wheel drive. AWD is not available with the manual.

Acceleration even under heavy throttle with the CVT is dreadfully slow and noisy, but throttle response and torque delivery improve when switching to manual mode to engage the CVT's six fake gears, via the shifter or paddles mounted on the steering wheel.

The CVT is standard on the SE grade and available on the other three trims.

The all-new Suzuki-developed 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. produces 185 hp with the 6-speed manual and 180 hp mated to the CVT. Unremarkable and lacking refinement, the all-aluminum I-4 with manual tends to rev high, holding steady at 3,000 rpm while cruising at 50 mph (80 km/h) in sixth gear.

The 3-pedal model manages a decent 29 mpg (8 L/100 km) on a 60-mile (97-km) stretch at medium speeds.

In a short loop in the GTS grade with CVT and AWD, the Kizashi delivers 23 mpg (10 L/100 km).

Environmental Protection Agency ratings for CVT-equipped models range from a low of 22/29 (10.7-8.1 L/100 km) city/highway with AWD and 17- or 18-in. tires, to 23/31 (10.2-7.6 L/100 km) city/highway in a front-wheel-drive model with 16-in. tires.

The latter number is comparable to ratings for the Altima and all-new Subaru Legacy, both equipped with 2.5L I-4s and CVTs.

Mileage suffers with 6MT models, rated at 20/29 mpg (12-8 L/100 km) city/highway with 17- or 18-in. tires.

Although hard plastic is plentiful inside, the matte finish on the dash is well done, tricking the eye into thinking it is soft to the touch.

Interior fit-and-finish is above par, with no sharp-edge flashing on door pockets. But there are a few unsightly gaps where B-pillar trim pieces meet adjacent surfaces. The center stack layout is uncluttered, but its plentiful piano-black trim shows fingerprints.

The Kizashi goes on sale in limited numbers in the U.S. this month. Pricing for the car will begin below $19,000 for a base S grade.

Suzuki says SE volume models will range from $21,499 to $22,749.

Suzuki sees the SE trim, which features standard CVT, 10-way power driver's seat and leather-wrapped steering wheel, taking the majority of sales. A take rate of 35% for AWD is predicted.

Suzuki won't reveal volume expectations, only that it can build 50,000 annually at its Sagara, Japan, plant.

While the Kizashi is competent, in the U.S. Suzuki is more associated with motorcycles than autos, and until recently the brand lacked a sterling reputation.

Both are issues that may preclude the Kizashi from becoming a force.

But the bigger obstacle is a raft of fiercely competitive midsize sedans selling in much higher volumes.

Suzuki Says Kizashi Will Attract New Type of Buyer to Brand