Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
According to a recent survey, most new car shoppers who leave a dealership without making a purchase do so based on price. In other words, most people think new cars are too expensive. Well, Suzuki is looking to turn that negative into a positive. In fact, it may already be doing so. Suzuki's sales in the U.S. are up 25 percent over last year. In Japan, where Suzuki is the number-four automaker, this doesn't seem like such a big deal. But with stiff competition in America from Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Toyota, a 25-percent sales increase is impressive.
Since 2003, Suzuki has come up with no less than four new cars with more on the way. The Verona and the Forenza brought Italian design and excellent value to the Suzuki name and gave budget-conscious shoppers a couple more alternatives. Now Suzuki is expanding its lineup with two more cars in the compact segment. The new Forenza wagon complements the stylish but affordable Forenza sedan, while the Suzuki Reno is also all new for 2005. The Reno is essentially a Forenza five-door hatchback similar to the Ford Focus ZX5 or Mazda 3 five-door, but Suzuki decided to set the Reno apart from the Forenza sedan and wagon by giving it a more distinctive exterior.
Although its body is unique, the Reno shares its mechanical components with the Forenza. Both the Forenza wagon and Reno use the same 126-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine and ride on the same 102-inch wheelbase. The wagon is about 10 inches longer and thanks to its more traditional roofline has 9 cubic feet of additional interior volume.
Like the Forenza and Verona sedan, both the Forenza wagon and Reno feature clean, attractive interior styling. But with a long list of standard features, value quickly takes center stage when considering either car. These days, many compact cars come standard with power door locks and windows, a tilt wheel and other such convenience features. The Reno and Forenza go a little further by offering such features as a micron air-filtration system for the cabin, an eight-speaker stereo (the Reno adds MP3 capability), a height-adjustable driver seat and lumbar adjustments for both front seats. Add to this the fact that all Suzukis come with roadside assistance and a free service loan car for all warranty repairs, and the theoretical asking price for such a car could be well over $20,000. Both the Reno and Forenza wagon are priced between $14,000 and $18,000.
But a long list of standard features will only take you so far. The cars have to perform well on the road — value isn't a word you want springing to mind when merging onto the expressway. For the most part, both the Forenza wagon and Reno deliver the goods when it comes to civility and comfort. This is especially true of the loaded EX that offers leather seats, cruise control, remote keyless entry and alloy wheels. The one thing lacking in both cars, however, is power — especially when equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission. While neither car is horribly underpowered, it is obvious that the 2.0-liter engine is working very hard to move the car in any sort of brisk manner. The sportier Reno does feel a bit peppier due to its slightly lower curb weight — the Forenza wagon is roughly 110 pounds heavier than the Reno.
Because the normally aspirated 2.0-liter engine found on the Forenza and Reno is somewhat down on power, the engine speed needs to remain high in order to keep forward motion at an acceptable level. The little motor is working hard and it makes itself known in the cabin. However, both cars exhibit very low levels of road and wind noise, so the cabin stays relatively quiet at highway speeds. The Forenza wagon is a reasonably comfortable car for a small family, as it feels at home in both city traffic and the open highway. Still, cars like the Subaru Impreza and Mazda 3 exhibit a more polished feel on the road and are more fun to drive.
For the 2005 model year, all Suzuki cars and SUVs come standard with side airbags and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. Available in three trim levels (S, LX and EX), the Forenza and Reno come with leather seating and door inserts when you opt for high-line EX trim. Again, the theme of value keeps coming up. And while it's true these cars offer reasonable value, it's a hard sell when you look closely. Compared against a car like the Kia Spectra, and Spectra5, the Forenza and Reno stack up favorably and may even be better all-around cars (they're certainly better-looking). But compare these two Suzukis to a $19,000 Mazda 3 and they fall short.
For example; the leather on the previously mentioned EX doesn't feel as nice as that found in brands like Toyota or Mazda. Also, some of the switchgear in the Forenza looks low-budget. On the other hand, both the Forenza and Reno offer interiors that are attractive on the whole and are of a higher quality than past Suzuki vehicles.
Not intended to be a sports cars, the Forenza and Reno intentionally choose a soft ride over sharp handling. Both cars tend to lean a bit in the corners with the wagon feeling especially soft. The result is great for most duties, but don't look to tackle twisty mountain roads on the weekends.
Suzuki's recent sales successes are the result of a few key factors. New products, excellent value and a stellar warranty (7 years/100,000 miles — and it's transferable). The recently introduced Forenza is a good-looking car and the newer Reno and Forenza wagon continue the theme of offering more for less — more style, more features, more value. Unfortunately, more performance is not one of the pieces of that puzzle. While the Forenza wagon and the Reno five-door have some good qualities, those looking for a sporty new car will be happier with the Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza or Ford Focus. If money is your main consideration but you don't want to be forced into a boring econobox, the Suzuki Forenza wagon and Reno five-door offer attractive alternatives with upscale features.
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