The cars we loved.
The specter of auto companies backing out of the tough American market is nothing new. Recently, it was a few GM divisions and Ford’s Mercury brand to have been shuttered. Decades before, it was a slate of European brands and many small niche domestic companies before that. By the time these companies finally decided to pull the plug, only a few die-hard petroheads actually cared. For everyone else, they had moved on to bigger and often better options. Besides Isuzu, few can remember a time when a Japanese company did an about face in the American car market. Isuzu scaled back in 2009 to the point of being a commercial truck only supplier in the US. American Suzuki Motor Corporation’s recent announcement of pulling out of the car business due to bankrupcy was not surprising. Suzuki like Isuzu never seemed able establish a firm foothold in America beyond that of a niche player (despite numerous partnerships). The two companies also built more highly reguarded cars for partners like GM at the expense of their own similarly branded cars and trucks.
Since 1963, the Suzuki name had been known for motorcycles in America. Their bikes were so good that by 1985 when American Suzuki Motor Corp. was established, they knew they would have an uphill battle convincing the public of their ability to build cars, although they had been doing it for decades elsewhere. We have always had just a sampling of what Suzuki had to offer, with usually no more than four to six models of subcompact vehicle.
Suzuki’s car business may have been brief in America, but its track record as a low-cost market innovator is unquestioned. In its first year of business, its small SUV, the Samurai, took the market by storm. It was only after the Consumer Union (Consumer Reports) found that it was susceptible to rollover under extreme conditions that sales cooled down. By then the Sidekick had become the next cheap SUV sensation. A few years later, Suzuki was heating up the sub compact market with its popular Swift. It made a better selling version for GM called the Geo Metro which paid the bills, but it was the sporty Swift GT that got the automotive press excited. It’s go quick cart handling, and economy won over performance enthusiast and the budget minded alike.
In an odd way, Suzuki’s successes were part of its problem. The clones built for others were better sellers than Suzuki branded cars. Many of Suzuki’s most popular vehicles had bigger selling counterparts: Sidekick=Tracker, Swift=Metro, etc. were bigger sellers for others. Suzuki would sit on the sidelines while brand building for GM like an un-credited songwriter who pens hits for more glamorous stars.
The start of the new millenium would not offer as much excitement as years before. New partnerships with Nissan, GM Daewoo and others continued to stabilize Suzuki’s car business in America. Competent, but anonymous cars like the badge engineered Verona sedan would bring Suzuki to the mid-sized sedan market. Other cars like the Aerio were interesting, but could not get any real market traction, despite favorable reviews.
Elsewhere in the world, Suzuki was best known for its stylish little cars like the Cappuccino and Twin. None of these interesting cars ever made it to the States. Had Suzuki supplemented its mainline Esteem and Swift with a sporty alternative, it may have made more of an impact as a niche brand, effectively beating Toyota’s Scion brand to the punch. Like a pop star with a few hits spread far between, Suzuki car sales would gradually dwindle.
As Suzuki cars sales continued their decline, market share for motorcycles, ATVs and boat engines would continue to be healthy. Recently the company pinned much of its hopes on a new and innovative midsized sedan, the Kizashi. The Kizashi was the largest and most refined car Suzuki ever sold in America. As good as it was, it could not prop up the company for too long, especially considering that less than 22,000 cars were sold in the first 10 months of 2012. If that figure were just for the Kizashi would
have been sad, but that figure includes all Suzuki cars. While not a surprise, the fourth largest Japanese car company’s withdrawl from the US market was enviable with only a small but odd portfolio of vehicles, many of them built by other companies. For instance, the Equator was a rebadged Nissan Frontier and accounted for less than 1600 of Suzuki’s 2012 sales for the first 10 months of the year (ironically, its sales figures were slowly increasing).
Like Isuzu, Suzuki will stick to what it does best. For Isuzu, that was small trucks. For Suzuki it will be the motorcycles, ATV and marine motors that we have known and loved since the 1960’s. For everyone else outside of the US market, Suzuki will continue to build the cute ke cars that cramped developing countries require. The loss of car sales here won’t be all that painful. After all, for many American enthusiasts, Suzuki died with the end of the Swift GT in 1994.