Though it's stickered at just $12,499 to start, about as inexpensive a new car as you'll find, the 2004 Suzuki Forenza, unlike a lot of cars at this level, is about as far from being a "stripper" as Barbara Bush. Even the base S model comes equipped with air conditioning, heated outside rearview mirrors, a micron cabin filtration system to cut down on airborne pollen and dust, intermittent wipers, electric rear defroster, four-wheel-disc brakes, an eight-speaker audio system with both tape player and CD, power windows and locks.
No other compact offers all or even most of these things for less than $13,000. Some of these features — notably the air conditioning with micron cabin filtration system, heated outside mirrors, and the four-wheel-disc brakes — represent new high-water marks for an ostensibly entry-level compact sedan. That they are now being offered as standard equipment on a sub-$13k car means they'll almost certainly become "givens" on even the most basic vehicles within a couple of years at most.
But for the moment, Suzuki has a jump on competitors that should help sell a bunch of these things.
Luxury at the bottom
But there's more. You can add leather seats (another very unusual feature for a car in this price range), an automatic transmission, fog lights, alloy wheels, even an electric sunroof and still not spend much more than $15,999, the sticker price of a top-of-the-line Forenza EX.
The car also has more interior space — 36.7 inches of rear seat legroom, 53.7 inches of shoulder room — than most of its established competitors, including the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
And it's a better deal. The '04 Civic DX sedan doesn't come with air conditioning (or much of anything else) included in its $13,010 base price, which is already $511 higher than the MSRP of the Forenza S. Step into a Toyota dealer and you'll discover the least expensive version of the '04 Corolla, the $13,570 CE, will set you back $1,071 more than the better-equipped, roomier, more substantial-looking Suzuki. The Corolla CE does at least come with air conditioning already included — but then again, it lacks the Forenza's standard four wheel disc brakes, there's no eight-speaker, tape- and CD-playing stereo system, plus it costs a solid grand more, just for openers. (You can bet there's a lot less "haggle room" on the Toyota than the Suzuki, too.) Ouch.
People are used to paying more for Hondas and Toyotas because of their well-deserved reputation for high quality. But with modern manufacturing techniques now in use by just about everyone — and given the psychic assurance of long-lived warranties that stretch up to and beyond what used to be considered the edge of the useful service life of a new car — it's getting harder to justify such a dramatic price/features gap on the strength of a nameplate alone. Certainly Toyota and Honda build excellent cars. But that doesn't mean others don't. Times change.
Remember: Most of the Forenza's potentially big ticket items like the engine and transmission are covered for seven years/100,000 miles — probably longer than you'll own the car. If something does go wrong during that time, Suzuki will pay for it anyhow, not you. Looked at another way, it would take about $2000 in non-warranty repair bills to even out the price/features imbalance between the Forenza and its mainline Japanese-brand competitors. That's a pretty compelling equation.
Suzuki even manages to pull the rug out from under value-leader Hyundai, which is quite something. The new Forenza is a bigger car and better equipped than the smaller, economy-feeling and looking Hyundai Accent. It's also less expensive, still a bit bigger and better equipped than Hyundai's next-up model, the Elantra, which starts at $13,299.
Ford's Focus comes close in terms of being a nice, big-feeling small car with plenty of room, but it starts at $13,255 and air conditioning is a $910 option. And the Ford's powertrain warranty, like those of the Honda and Toyota, is not as good as the Suzuki's.
Look around and you won't find a great many, if any, compact sedans that can match the Forenza's mix of features, roominess and accommodations, and its bang for your buck. But what matters even more is that the Forenza is an appealing car in its own right, money notwithstanding. Having one parked in your garage is not depressing. You won't feel like a poor boy out on the road. The Forenza's 2.0-liter, 126-hp engine is larger and more powerful than the Civic's standard 1.7-liter, 115-hp engine, the 110-hp engine in the Focus, and neck and neck with the Corolla's 1.8-liter, 130-hp engine. Its ride is quiet, solid and far removed from the clown-car experience that used to characterize entry level machines. Most of the compact sedans and coupes currently available still lean more toward a sporty ride — a little tight, a little bit stiff — in keeping with the youthful target demographic. But it's nice to find a softer-sprung, plusher car that costs less and which can do the family car/road trip thing a lot better.
People will be surprised when you tell them how much you paid — and discover how much you got. You could do a lot worse for twelve grand.
But it'd be hard to do much better.
Base price range: $12,499-$15,999
Engine: 2.0-liter four cylinder, 126 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic with "Hold" mode, front-wheel-drive
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Length: 177.2 in
Width: 67.9 in
Height: 56.9 in
Curb Weight: 2756 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 24/31 mpg (five-speed)
Safety equipment: Dual airbags, four-wheel-disc brakes (ABS optional)
Major standard features: air conditioning w/Micron cabin filtration system, power windows and locks, AM/FM stereo with tape player, CD and eight speakers, electric rear defrost, heated outside rearview mirrors, full instruments including tachometer
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles basic; seven years/100,000 miles powertrain