Whereas many consumers may think of automakers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan as Japan's heavy-hitters, few would consider the Suzuki brand a player in the automotive big leagues. However, look at sales numbers in Japan, and you'll find that Suzuki is actually quite successful, thanks largely to its tiny kei car-class Wagon R, one of the hottest-selling vehicles in the most popular segment for years.

While Suzuki's lack of recognition (and sales) here in America can be attributed to any number of factors, the automaker is certainly not lacking when it comes to ambition, and they really want you to think of them before your next car purchase. So how can Suzuki make its way into America's collective car-buying consciousness? One way is to introduce a vehicle that makes such an impression that consumers not only want to buy it, but are also drawn to consider other products in the automaker's lineup. A recent example of this "halo effect" can be seen in Hyundai's sales numbers following the introduction of the Genesis.

That's why Suzuki is placing all of its bets on the newly unveiled midsize Kizashi (pronounced "kee-zah-shee"), a vehicle whose very name means "something great is coming" in Japanese. Bold name choice? Perhaps. But after seeing the new vehicle first-hand at a recent unveiling, we think the plucky automaker may be on the right track, even though we weren't allowed to drive it just yet.

Interested? Read on:

Exterior styling

The Kizashi is no wallflower, as the photos to the left attest. Note the faintly VW-reminiscent front fascia with projector-beam headlamps, high beltline and integrated dual sport exhaust. Filling the wheel wells are 16-, 17- or 18-inch wheels; the alloy 18-inchers come with Dunlop tires (and, in our opinion, look the best ). While the final trim levels and how they will be equipped have yet to be announced, one iteration of the Kizashi at the unveiling came adorned with a healthy dose of chrome that we feel was the most artfully-placed exterior bling we've seen in a while.

Interior styling

Opening the door and slipping inside the vehicle, the first thing we noticed was how well executed it was. Nearly every surface, from the top of the dash to the rear passenger door panels, was pleasantly soft to the touch. We particularly enjoyed the easy-to-manipulate Audi-like audio and cruise controls on the steering wheel. The straight-forward, non-cluttered center stack was also a high point, presenting a simple arrangement of dials and buttons. The seats, whether upholstered in fabric or available leather, were accented with French seam details, and the rear headrests folded down for greater rear visibility. Overall, the layout of the cabin was roomy and comfortable, so much so that when seated behind someone in the 6-foot-plus range, we didn't feel cramped.

Under the hood

For 2010, the Suzuki Kizashi will only be available with a 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine mated to either a six-speed manual or a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) with paddle shifters. A hybrid iteration is also supposedly in the works. While we haven't had the chance yet to slide behind the wheel and get the Kizashi moving, Suzuki says that the vehicle will net horsepower numbers near the top of its class, and that its EPA mileage ratings will be competitive.

On-road performance?

We can only guess as to how the Kizashi will perform on the road, but Suzuki assures us that its sporty demeanor is more than skin deep. According to the automaker, the vehicle has "an exceptionally rigid steel unibody" with reinforced front suspension and multi-link rear suspension and offers "crisp, nimble handling with excellent stability, sophisticated ride and reduced chassis vibration." For the Kizashi's braking system Suzuki tapped suppliers Bosch and Akebono -- the latter of which is a leading supplier of brakes for Japan's bullet trains, if you must know. Suzuki was also quick to point out that the car was driven extensively on the German autobahn, through the Swiss Alps, on the Nurburgring and on the "cobblestone roads of rural England."

Notable features:

While many of the final details have yet to be released, here are some of the features you can expect:

Push-button start
USB port
Eight airbags (including rear seat-mounted side airbags)
Vehicle dynamic control system and electronic stability control

Suzuki next-gen i-AWD
Leather seats with three-stage heating and memory settings
Bluetooth streaming audio
425-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system

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