• First Drive: 2016 Suzuki Ciaz

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    D2---Ciaz-420160322Can it make waves in the country’s most competitive car segment

    It’s tough making a small car these days.

    An increasingly congested world has led to people flocking from their leviathan sport-utility vehicles and boulevard-tearing large sedans into something that’s easier to drive, easier to park and cheaper to fuel and maintain. But these people still expect their small cars to be all-singing, all-dancing machines that can do big-car things with little-car frugality. In other words, the modern small car must be an automobile with very few compromises.

    Fortunately for Suzuki, making excellent small cars is its forte. And it was keen to prove this when it invited Fast Times and other members of the motoring media on March 9 to 10 to drive its new Ciaz sedan, designed to take on rivals like the Toyota Vios, Honda City, Nissan Almera and Ford Fiesta, ahead of its April 2016 launch. The 235-kilometer journey to Aiyanar Beach and Dive Resort in Anilao, Batangas had us cruising along the expressway, getting heart disease while admiring Taal Volcano and tearing through the mountain roads of Batangas.

    Nondescript styling, cavernous cabin, smooth highway ride
    Our starting point was Suzuki Auto Sucat in Parañaque City for the briefing. After a sumptuous breakfast, I slipped out before the briefing started to take a peek at the Ciazes parked in front of the dealership.

    The first thing that struck me was the car’s width, which was accentuated by the huge projector headlights flanking the prominent chrome grill. More chrome was on the beltline and the door handles, adding pizzazz to the rather dull flanks and too-narrow 16-inch alloy wheels. But the real surprise was the rear end, which very much resembled the City, from the shape of the large combination taillights to the reflectors in the lower rear bumper.

    Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but perhaps the Ciaz’s designers could have done better to imitate models in Suzuki’s own line-up (like the handsome Kizashi). It certainly may not be as striking to look at as a Fiesta, but it certainly won’t make you grimace like an Almera.

    Afterwards, I headed back in for the briefing where Suzuki Philippine General Manager for Automobile Shuzo Hoshikura said in a short speech that the Ciaz is a completely new product and instructed us to carefully check the vehicle (music to our ears). The organizers then briefed us on the route and assigned us to our cars.

    First, we had to cross the street to Total Sucat (the French oil company served as Suzuki’s partner for the event) to get the cars. Then, we had to take the South Luzon Expressway to Nuvali Evoliving in Santa Rosa, Laguna, followed by a run up to Tagaytay for lunch at Balay Dako by Antonio’s. The final leg was a 79-kilometer drive from Tagaytay to Aiyanar.

    I got Car No. 7, which I shared with esteemed colleagues Bess Zamora from AQ Magazine and Charles Buban from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Opening the trunk to load all our stuff, we all saw that the compartment’s big space and good shape made it very competitive for its class.

    Stepping inside, we all noticed the well-appointed and spacious interior – lined in leather in the top-specification GLX model we were in, which included niceties like an Android-based touchscreen infotainment system, a push-start button and automatic climate control. Bess took the leg from Total to Nuvali, with Charles riding shotgun and me in the back. I particularly liked the generous rear legroom, which certainly outclasses nearly all of its B-segment rivals and almost matches the Almera.

    Speaking of similarities to the Nissan, the air-conditioning was so strong that I started getting chilly in the back despite the mid-day heat. Out on the expressway, the firm suspension kept the Ciaz composed at high speeds, while tire roar was minimal. However, I found that the engine vibration wasn’t quite as well supressed as in the Vios.

    Clutch and brakes need work
    Arriving at Nuvali, we all stopped to get photos of the new car. While waiting for my colleagues to finish their shoots, I noticed something very different about the Ciaz that carried some of Suzuki Philippines’s staff – it had a clutch pedal and a gearstick with numbers on it. This was apparently the base GL model, which looks exactly like the GLX except for the 15-inch alloy wheels.

    Inside, the manual Ciaz wasn’t much different from the flagship variant – save for the lack of cowhide, the push starter and the climate control – because it also had a touchscreen infotainment system (although not Android-based). The company very nicely let me drive it, with some official photographers tagging along to get additional shots for their promotional materials.

    All Ciazes come with a 1.4-liter, twin-cam, 16-valve inline-four – which has seen service in the Ertiga and the old Swift 1.4 – producing 92 horsepower and 130 Newton-meters of torque that can be paired to either a five-speed manual or a rather archaic four-speed automatic. For this model, the company said the engine has been given revisions like new cylinder heads for added efficiency and performance.

    In other markets, the Ciaz is available with a 1.3-liter, twin-cam, 16-valve, inline-four turbodiesel that produces 89 horsepower and 200 Nm of torque. But Hoshikura said in an interview with Fast Times that preparing the turbodiesel model for a left-hand-drive market like the Philippines would not be practical at this time, although he also said he was pushing the company’s headquarters to bring in more diesel models.

    Since the subdivision was still uninhabited and under supervision by Nuvali security, I was able to give it a light thrashing, where I was surprised to discover that the clutch and brake pedals were unpleasant to use. Although the clutch was light, it had a high bite point and wouldn’t come up as quickly as my foot did.

    And while the brakes were very strong, the brake pedal seemed to work like a switch, such that there was nothing was happening on the first half of travel, with the brakes abruptly kicking in on the second half. Indeed, these should be adjusted post-haste as these are disconcerting for many drivers.

    Sizzling bulalo and the open road
    After all the photo-ops, we headed back to our Ciaz, this time with Charles behind the wheel for the climb to Tagaytay. I spent most of this leg asleep, waking up to find that we were already on the mountains overlooking Taal. At Balay Dako, which means “big house” in Negrense and has a truly spectacular view of Taal Volcano, we were treated to a multi-course meal that included sinigang, ginataang munggo and a true artery blocker, sizzling bulalo with (ironically) vegetables.

    After lunch, I finally got behind the wheel of our Ciaz. Out on the twists and turns of the national highways heading into Batangas, the Ciaz showcased its piece de resistance: a superb chassis and suspension set-up.

    Working with the responsive and well-weighted steering, the Ciaz was simply unflappable in high-speed turns, despite having three onboard and a trunk full of bags. And over rutted roads, the firm suspension that kept it planted on the expressway and through the bends suppressed surface imperfections with aplomb.

    However, much like the manual, the brake pedal on the GLX was difficult to modulate (rather worrying for an automatic-transmission car) and the combination of the gearbox’s high-gearing (for better fuel efficiency) and lack of low-end engine torque (which wasn’t noticeable in the manual because I could change down quickly) meant acceleration was a bit sluggish. Adding more torque, more gears or lower gearing would be a great improvement.

    After a two-hour-long trip, we finally made it to Aiyanar by late afternoon. Walking down the stone staircase, the resort’s two-storey blocks of rooms towered on the mountainside to our left. And to the right, the vast sea beckoned, with the sun seemingly prepared to take its leave beneath the deep-blue blanket.

    By nightfall, we enjoyed dinner, drinks and a live band (where I even got up on stage for less-than-stellar yet entertaining rendition of Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’). The next day, we went to a private island for breakfast by the beach, then heading back home after lunch.

    Fabulous all-rounder that needs polishing
    In summary, the all-new Suzuki Ciaz is another shining example of why the Japanese carmaker is a leader in building small cars. It really is an all-singing, all-dancing B-segment sedan – managing to be spacious, practical, comfortable, refined and well-equipped while being marvelous to drive. With the GL manual priced at P738,000, the GL automatic at P778,000 and the GLX automatic at P888,000, it’s also priced to wreak havoc on its rivals.

    Certainly, if Suzuki makes the Ciaz quieter, gives it a gutsier power train, livens up the styling and, most importantly, fixes those pedals, I don’t see why it can’t be the best in its class.

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