It's quite out of the box, this launch.

The last time I went to the racetrack for a car launch, it was with a low-slung two-door roadster. So what are we doing in Batangas Racing Circuit with Suzuki's newest baby, the Dzire?

Yes, the folks from Suzuki Philippines decided it was best to show off the Dzire on the race track. Surely, there must be a surprise in store. Right?

 First Drive: Suzuki's new Dzire and automated manual gearbox

But before we get to the track, some first impressions. For starters, it drops the Swift tag and it looks a lot better than the previous-generation model. Not that the old one was a thing of beauty, it's just that this new one looks a bit more cohesive. The lines of the car look far better than before, looking less of a hatchback with a trunk tacked on (Suzuki's own admission) and more of a baby sedan. Mind you, the overall styling will still split opinions but I say it's more palatable than the previous-gen model.

As for the front, it's a bit on the 'cutesy' side but the chrome trim surrounding the grill is, perhaps, optimistic in its upmarket aspirations. Still, I say B-segment cars should be a bit more playful with their styling so props to Suzuki for trying to make it look unique. It's nice too that the automaker did some styling differences between this and the upcoming Swift to give each their own personalities, so to speak.

 First Drive: Suzuki's new Dzire and automated manual gearbox

So far, the Dzire is promising, but what is it like inside? To be honest, it's noticeably narrower inside than the Ciaz but, in all fairness, footwell space in front is actually good. Cabin materials on the other hand are on par with its segment. While that means acres of hard plastic, it feels solid and well put together. It feels like it will last a long time.

Ergonomics are simple and straightforward, easy to pick up for the first time driver I say. As for rear space, it should be good enough for most but you can only put in so much room in such a small footprint. Put in a six footer in front and there's decent space, just not commodious. Again, it will be good enough for most though. As a bonus however, it does get air-conditioning vents at the back, a plus in this tropical country. Trunk size is good in terms of width but think if it more of an extension of a hatchback's floor area.

 First Drive: Suzuki's new Dzire and automated manual gearbox

The main reason why Suzuki brought us out to the track is to test out their new automated manual transmission. Dubbed the Auto Gear Shift, it's reminiscent of BMW's Sequential Manual Gearbox from the early 2000's. The transmission relies on a clutch, but you won't see a clutch pedal in there. Instead, the clutch and gear changes are controlled electronically, depending on pedal pressure and speed. Think of it then as a manual but you don't have to juggle your feet around the pedals.

It sounds promising in theory, but how is it in practice? It's time to go for a spin in the Dzire.

Setting off, it creeps forward like a conventional automatic, albeit a bit slower than a slushbox. That said, it isn't annoyingly slow, nor was it too jerky. If you want it to creep faster, simply prod the throttle pedal and it will keep that speed. So far, so good then.

Take it at speed and leave it to its own devices in Auto, and it's eager to upshift. With that, upshifts take their time, akin to the sensation of the clutch being depressed and slotting it in gear. It seems like the transmission's software is geared towards economy with shift points between 2,000 to 2,500 rpm. Set to drive, and efficiency takes priority while making progress is secondary. Then again, a commuter car like this isn't exactly designed to be a speed machine from the get go.

 First Drive: Suzuki's new Dzire and automated manual gearbox

Mind you, it isn't sluggish. Bury your foot deeper and it will kick down a gear, again like an automatic. Power from the 1.2-liter engine is rated at 82 PS and 113 Nm of torque. To put it nicely, the figures look conservative but its light weight means it accelerates decently and gets to 100 km/h at an acceptable rate. Just how light is this car? According to the specsheet, it isn't even a ton; 895 kilograms to be exact.

So, what happens when you decide to put it in manual mode? Again, upshift times are similar to leaving it in full auto but you get free reign over the rev band. There, you can exploit the powerband which sits around the mid-range, adequate for overtaking but perhaps you'll need a little more time when passing trucks; 82 horsepower can only do so much. Still, it was a joy 'shifting' the Dzire and downshifts were surprisingly smooth. It was as if it had some form of rev-matching function, and that also means less motion sickness.

 First Drive: Suzuki's new Dzire and automated manual gearbox

Since we were on the track, we might as well test out the handling. You can have a bit of fun around the twisties in it, with good turn in and a playful chassis. Yes, the steering is light, but it can be a delight on sweeping turns. I reckon the platform can handle a little more power, but again, it's aimed for the daily grind, and not the weekend trackday warrior. A Dzire Sport anyone?

Final thoughts? In this setting at least, the novel transmission works well, not showing any bad habits out on the course. Shift times might be slow for some but may likely be acceptable for most. Overall, the Dzire drives well, is competitively priced (Auto Gear Shift versions start in the region of Php 700,000), and offers an interesting value proposition. It's a lot better looking now too.

That said, the true test will be out in the real world. How will the Auto Gear Shift fare in traffic? Will it be just as good during this first drive? A road test is in order but as far as first impressions go, it's a good one.