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At some point in their lives, most people find themselves in need of a small, inexpensive car that gets them from home to office with minimal hassle. Honda and Toyota have spent decades perfecting their economy cars, and we'll wager that the names "Civic" and "Corolla" come up in most every small sedan buyer's research. Trouble is, you pay dearly for these household names. A Civic EX may indeed be worth all $17,000 it costs to buy it, but if your budget's only $15,000, you're going to have to shed some equipment and horsepower or pick a different car. For the last several years, the Hyundai Elantra has been our top recommendation to economy sedan buyers seeking to get a lot for a little. After spending a week with Suzuki's new Forenza, though, we feel the Elantra may have to share its role as econocar value leader.
Like the midsize Verona sedan, the Forenza is the product of General Motors' purchase of Daewoo Motor Company and Suzuki's ongoing partnership with the world's largest automaker. Badged as a Daewoo in other parts of the world, the Korean-built Forenza is essentially a replacement for the Daewoo Nubira that was sold in the U.S. from 1999 to 2002. The Nubira, too, was loaded with standard features and sold at bargain prices, but it suffered greatly for its unrefined driving dynamics and cut-rate interior materials. Since GM took the helm, the design and engineering budget has evidently increased, as the Forenza is light-years ahead of the Nubira in these areas.
But if you know anything about Suzuki, you know the company already sells a homegrown economy car called the Aerio (introduced for 2002). The Aerio and Forenza occupy roughly the same price territory, though an available all-wheel-drive system and a choice between sedan and wagon body styles make it likely that you'll spend more on an Aerio. Advantages to the Aerio include a standard 155-hp engine, a tall cabin design with generous headroom and good crash test scores. Disadvantages include sloppy handling, a dire lack of cabin storage and low-grade interior plastics.
Where does this leave the Forenza? Surprisingly, the younger Suzuki has the more balanced package: It rides well, handles well and has an upscale cabin with plenty of storage. Although its 126-hp engine looks unimpressive on paper, it gets the job done in traffic and falls midpack in the economy sedan segment. Unless you're looking for AWD or a wagon, we think the Forenza would be more satisfying to own than the Aerio. (Note that Suzuki plans to add a wagon to the Forenza lineup for 2005.)
But intrabrand competition ultimately counts for little in this large segment, where buyers will pit either Suzuki against mainstream cars like the Civic, Corolla, Elantra, Ford Focus and Nissan Sentra among others. How does the Forenza stack up in this setting? Once again, surprisingly well. Just running down the standard features list tells you plenty, as the base S model costs just $13,349 and comes with four-wheel disc brakes, a height-adjustable driver seat, a padded center armrest, air conditioning, an eight-speaker CD stereo, steering wheel audio controls and power windows, mirrors and locks.
About the only basic amenity you can't get on the S is cruise control. The midgrade LX provides it, along with alloy wheels, foglights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a sunroof and keyless entry. Finally, the high-line EX is available for those who want leather upholstery, but it requires a four-speed automatic transmission (also available on the lower trims). Antilock brakes are the only option; they cost $500 extra on all trims. Missing in action are side-impact airbags, a feature that comes standard on the Elantra and is optional on all other competitors in this segment. Our manual-shift LX test vehicle did not have ABS and came in at $14,899 (including destination charge); however, buyers should note that a subsequent price increase has pushed that figure to $15,249.
Step inside and the Forenza doesn't immediately remind you how little you paid to get it. In fact, its cabin is just as nice as that of the $20,000 Verona. Instead of halfhearted fake wood inserts, though, Suzuki opted for faux aluminum trim in its new economy sedan. Soft green backlighting provides an attractive complement for the metallic look, and in the gauge cluster, soft blue light encircles the speedometer a subtle touch that gives the interior a little personality. In comparison, the Elantra's cockpit seems a bit dowdy.
Fortunately, the Forenza backs up its style with quality materials and solid fit and finish. Designers covered the dash and door tops in a textured, soft-touch material that looks and feels good enough to be used in a more expensive car. The velour-type cloth upholstery is soft and inoffensive in appearance, and seems likely to stand up to everyday use. The door panels include large fabric inserts such that outboard occupants will always have a comfy spot to rest an arm. All but a few of the plastic panels are low in gloss, and all of the controls feel at least average in quality. The adjustable vents are particularly well executed: Metallic trim gives them a classy look, while their damped adjustment action returns an impression of substance.
Build quality was excellent on our test vehicle. We noted flashing (leftover from the molding process) on some plastics and a buzz from the front of the headliner, but didn't find one misaligned panel inside or out. Although you'll find higher-quality switchgear in a Civic or Corolla, the Forenza is definitely above average in the build and materials department.
Take a seat behind the wheel and there's a cloth-covered and padded center armrest to cradle your right elbow. Along with all the basic adjustments, the driver seat offers two-way seat bottom tilt and lumbar adjustment. Decent seat-track travel and a roomy footwell make the Forenza worth a test-drive for taller drivers who feel cramped in the Corolla or Mazda 3. The seats themselves are nicely shaped and offer enough firm support to get you through a road trip. A pair of large cupholders is conveniently housed in the center console, and you can stick a 1.5-liter water bottle in one of them without blocking access to the shifter.
Most controls fall readily to hand from the driver seat. An illuminated ignition assures that you won't be fumbling with the key in the dark, and a straightforward three-dial climate control setup makes it easy to get the cool air flowing on warm days. The stereo head unit is a little busy, as it's overstocked with buttons and extraneous features. Mastering the basic functions isn't too difficult, though, and the steering wheel controls make it a simple proposition to adjust the volume or advance a CD track. The cruise control buttons are also on the wheel. Fussy power mirror adjusters and the lack of retained accessory power (after you shut off the engine) are among our few complaints.
In the backseat, the accommodations aren't the best you'll find in the economy sedan class, but anyone under six feet tall should be OK on short trips. The bench is high enough to provide thigh support and the back cushion has a comfortable rake. The cushioning is firm but not unpleasantly so. Legroom is just average, but there's plenty of room to slide your feet under the front seats. A fold-down armrest houses the rear cupholders and gives your passengers some personal space. Three-point belts are provided in all three seating positions, as are head restraints.
Like the Elantra, the Forenza gives owners plenty of room for their personal effects. A large rubber-lined well under the center stack can easily handle your cell phone, sunglasses and garage door opener all at once. Additionally, spacious door bins are provided in both the front and rear, allowing everyone on board to stow maps and snacks. Trunk capacity measures 12.4 cubic feet, which is average among economy sedans. When you need to haul an assemble-it-yourself bookshelf, the seats fold not-quite-flat in a 60/40 split to open up extra room.
Obviously, a well-appointed interior wouldn't be worth much if the driving experience was unpleasant. And although the Forenza won't exactly make you forget you're driving an economy car, it proved to be an agreeable companion in the course of our travels. Power is provided by a 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine rated for 126 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque. We weren't enamored with the soupy shift action of our test car's manual transmission, but once the car was in gear, there was adequate low- and midrange torque to keep pace in L.A. freeway traffic. Rarely, in fact, did we wish for more power, even when passing and merging.
It took concentration to shift smoothly in the Forenza, but it's always nice to have full control over shift points when driving a compact car amongst SUVs and their sometimes inattentive owners. Still, most economy sedans from the pricey Mazda 3 to the thrifty Elantra offer more refined manual gearboxes.
In instrumented acceleration testing, the Forenza took 9.6 seconds to reach 60 mph (and 17.1 for the quarter-mile), which puts it in the middle of the pack among economy sedans. Considering that most people opt for an automatic transmission in their budget sedans, a manual-shift Forenza is actually one of the spunkier econocars around. Refinement is not quite up to Honda and Toyota standards, as the Forenza's 2.0-liter engine has a gruff sound and drones a bit when cruising. Fuel economy is a serious weak point, as the Suzuki's 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway rating falls short of every other car in the segment, not to mention some midsize sedans.
Although the Forenza may not be the most efficient commuter car on the market, it is at least a comfortable one. A fully independent front strut/rear dual-link suspension smoothes out most road surfaces and floats lightly over the occasional bump or expansion joint. The ride can be a bit harsh over rough or grooved pavement, but unless you live in an area of the country riddled with potholes, we doubt you'll have any complaints. Wind and road noise levels are average as economy cars go.
Soft suspension tuning keeps the Forenza from being a sharp handler in the corners, but it's a capable car with predictable reflexes. After you negotiate the initial body roll, the Suzuki settles down and its 15-inch Hankook Optima tires provide more grip than you would expect. If you're the carefree type, you might actually enjoy tossing the Forenza around on the occasional back road. We did. The steering is progressively weighted, and feels tight and well connected to the road at high speeds. Its response time to driver inputs is about average for this segment. Notably, it's more accurate than the Aerio's steering. Overall, the Forenza's handling characteristics most closely match those of the Elantra. Discerning buyers will prefer the dynamics of cars like the Civic and Focus, but if you make few demands on your car, the Suzuki is unlikely to disappoint.
Equipped with a full set of disc brakes, the Forenza exhibited acceptable stopping power in everyday traffic. Pedal actuation could be more progressive, and our test driver noted that the pedal stiffened up quickly during emergency braking simulations at the track making it difficult to avoid locking the wheels of our test car, which didn't have ABS. Our driving expert did get a 138-foot 60-to-0-mph stopping distance out of the Forenza, a solid performance from a car without ABS. Brake fade was not an issue under heavy use, and the car stopped straight in its lane every time.
Other than subpar gas mileage, questionable passive safety is the main thing that gives us pause about the Forenza. Side airbags are basically a requirement on the options list these days, even among economy cars. Add to that the Suzuki's middling three-star performance (out of five possible) in government side-impact crash tests. Certainly, it's better to avoid an accident in the first place, but when your own family members are going to be driving and riding in the car, it would be nice to know that they have the best protection possible. The Forenza fared better in frontal impact testing, earning four stars for both the driver and front passenger. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has yet to put this Suzuki through the 40-mph frontal offset test.
If you can live with so-so side-impact protection and 22 mpg in the city, the Forenza is packed with value. It's not an economy car that will appeal to enthusiasts or those seeking maximum refinement, but for the money, it gets the job done without making the driving experience the least bit unpleasant. Consider this alongside its comfortable, well-furnished interior, solid build and materials quality and long standard features list, and indeed, there are many good reasons to test-drive the Forenza if you're shopping for a small, inexpensive car. If Suzuki added some side airbags and variable valve timing (to improve fuel efficiency), this car would have no difficulty breaking into the leaders' circle.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
It looks like Suzuki finally has a viable competitor to the class favorites. The Forenza's well-finished cabin and silky movement of its various controls should please those used to the quality of a Civic or Corolla. As far as more serious concerns, I was impressed with the refinement of the powertrain (rubbery gearshift excepted) and it was powerful enough to easily deal with downtown dicing and high-speed cruising. Although not thrilling, the handling is certainly good enough for this car's mission.
Of course, price is always important, but even more so in this segment where buyers want to get the most for their economy car dollar. With the Forenza, Suzuki nailed the basics, wrapped the car up in an attractive skin and had the confidence to provide a huge warranty. With a sticker price a couple of grand less than the more popular brands and an easy-to-live-with personality, the Forenza now rivals the Hyundai Elantra as my favorite bargain-priced dark horse.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The first hurdle low-cost cars must pass is exterior styling. With the Forenza and Verona, Suzuki is starting to "get it," both cars look nice and lack the cost-cutting appearance of some in their respective segments. The Forenza is attractive enough that I would not be ashamed of the car if I owned one. The same cannot be said for the Nissan Sentra or Chevy Cavalier.
So the styling is fresh and contemporary, but what about the ride quality? Even the Esteem was a reasonably attractive car but it couldn't cross the second hurdle for small, affordable cars ride and interior quality. Actually, the Forenza impressed me in that department as well. No one will ever mistake the Forenza's ride for a Civic's, but to me it was on par with the Hyundai Elantra's or Mitsubishi Lancer's. The engine is not a powerhouse, but it does offer enough pep for most driving situations. Still, 126 hp is nothing to brag about, especially when Suzuki's own Aerio is good for 155. Now, I'm almost certain the Aerio is heavier, but still . Suzuki, bump the horsepower up on this one.
The interior materials are fine for this segment. Again, the Civic and Corolla are tops but the Forenza is not super-cheap-looking or -feeling like the Sentra. The interior and dash layout are kinda bland. It's obvious that Suzuki tried to jazz it up by adding metallic trim around the gearshift and gauges.
Finally, I like the near-$13,000 base price of the base S version that gets you four-wheel discs, cabin air filtration, CD and cassette player, tilt steering wheel with audio controls plus all the expected power features. Oh, and Suzuki has a killer warranty. Honda's 3/36 looks like a typo when comparing it to other small cars. The bummer comes when you add features like foglights, remote entry and alloy wheels; in LX or EX trim, the Forenza's price is firmly in Civic territory. The Forenza is a pretty good little car, but the competition is fierce.
"We just bought our Forenza this past Saturday, and we are very impressed. Suzuki cars are not well known in America, yet, but they rank up with Hondas and Toyotas in Pakistan. We love this car, and the way it is made. We have a 2000 Infiniti G20t, and for an entry-level model, the Forenza is impressive. Get 'em before the price goes up, as people will soon realize how good of a car this truly is. Favorite features: loaded, price, warranty, interior, exteriors. Suggested improvements: Automatic gearbox is sensitive, and does not always seem to shift gears in a timely manner. A little more power will wrap it up nicely." Baz, March 16, 2004
"Love the exterior look produced by Italian Pininfarina and the Fusion Red color. Overall interior space is roomier than Corolla's, Civic's and Sentra's. Interior materials have great quality. Driver seat has nice side and adjustable lumbar support, nice for aching lower backs engine is torquey, 126 hp and 131 lb-ft, silent, smooth and enjoyable (someone with new Mitsubishi Galant tried to race me, but lost). Standard design features good, 195R5515 tires, good in cornering.... Favorite features: Steering wheel radio controls, nice stock sound system, awesome smooth drive and cornering, driver-seat lumbar support, comfortable seats, space enough for a 6' 2" driver (Civic, Corolla and Sentra too small) in front, plenty leg- and headroom in the back as well. Suggested improvements: Improve gas mileage a bit, otherwise great, and, perhaps, offer a real high-performance engine option as the rest of the car is a sleeper of excellent handling characteristics that could take yet much more power than it already has and turn the car to an even bigger winner than it already is." Ray Hg S, Feb. 15, 2004
"I drove a 1990 Suzuki Swift for 14 years and just bought a new Forenza. It is an amazing car. Beautiful design. Sits higher than most cars. I really like the S model, since without the sunroof on the higher-line models, you get many inches of additional headroom. Amazingly quiet; no wind noise at all. I can't imagine anyone buying a Civic, etc. over this car. Favorite features: high seating; great outward view; beautiful design, inside and out; 5-speed shifter feels great and not like typical front-drive car. Suggested improvements: needs better-quality trunk liner. Suzuki sells one for $50 which I highly suggest you buy." rnf, March 9, 2004
"This has been a wonderful car for me...but not without its problems. I've already had to return to the dealership several times for emissions issues, alignment problems, and most recently fuel mileage difficulties. Despite the fact that I drive primarily highway miles, the car stubbornly refuses to get anything better than 18-19 mpg horrendous for a vehicle of this type (with an engine that only puts out 126 hp)!!! I am seeking help from Suzuki in solving the problem because the dealership is stumped. The necessity of filling up the car after only 200 miles of driving is a major annoyance. Favorite features: Wonderful amenities (heated mirrors, steering wheel stereo controls, etc.). Suggested improvements: Gas mileage needs to be dramatically improved; better initial reliability could also be worked on (repeated trips to the dealership are a pain in the @@@!" Morlock, Jan. 22, 2004
"Lots of room, comfortable, cute and affordable. I love my new Forenza. Great gas mileage and lots of trunk space. The armrest with the cupholder on the backseat is great for kids to put drinks in. Less accidents. Very family- and pocketbook-friendly car. Favorite features: Nice stereo with controls on the steering wheel. The perfect car for me." Happy2, Feb. 10, 2004
System Score: 8.0
Components: While most manufacturers stick you with a low-watt, four-speaker stereo at this price point, Suzuki treats all Forenza buyers to a 140-watt, eight-speaker system. All four doors contain both a tweeter and a full-range driver for a total of eight speakers.
The head unit is identical to the one in the larger Verona, which means it's a little overloaded with buttons and extraneous equalizer settings that really don't add to the listening experience. We recommend that you set the bass and treble levels where you want them and forget about the other adjustments. Even with the busy head unit, most owners will have no difficulty finding the basics volume, seek and the radio presets. Redundant steering wheel controls allow to you make simple adjustments without taking your hands off the wheel. The setup includes both a single CD player and a cassette player.
Performance: With respectable power and plenty of speakers to go around, this is one of the most enjoyable standard sound systems you'll find in an economy car. The Ford Focus and Scion offerings are the only ones you might like better at this price. Bass is particularly strong, and just about any type of hip hop, metal or rock has a nice thump to it. The output at higher volume settings could certainly be cleaner, but for bass junkies, the Forenza's stereo is a bargain. The tweeters in all four doors produce warm highs, and the combination of both a tweeter and a driver in each door produces a nice soundstage around the car's occupants. We didn't notice distortion at any reasonable listening volumes.
Best Feature: Number and location of speakers.
Worst Feature: Busy head unit.
Conclusion: A great stereo in a car that's already packed with value. Erin Riches