Is Suzuki Quitting the U.S. Car Market?
Suzuki's American division, famous for motorcycles and ATVs, is struggling mightily to sell cars.
Rumors that Suzuki may quit the U.S. auto market have been circling since April, when Automotive News published a report on the company’s sluggish dealerships and heavy cost-cutting measures. Of course, a few years back, Mitsubishi was also rumored to be packing up shop, and it has yet to go anywhere. But rumors are based partly on perception, and here, not much is being done to refute the perception of Suzuki America being a lost, broke and generally invisible automaker.
Of course, had General Motors and Chrysler not been propped up by the U.S. Treasury, Suzuki might not look so bad in comparison. Nearly every automaker gets scared to wits during the lowest of low points (witness Audi’s near-death in the 1990s following the “60 Minutes” sudden acceleration scandal). For foreign car companies, it’s always more of a risk to start a new brand in an established local market, and the risk grows greater with each passing decade that the automobile has been in existence. Currency fluctuations, trade wars and international politics also get in the way. Barring all these obstacles, a foreign automaker has to actually build good cars and promote them with a sizable marketing budget. In 1998, Daewoo was DOA just three months in. Four years later, the company declared bankruptcy.
Other foreign automakers, those who have since packed up and left, couldn’t handle America’s hugeness, nor could they recognize the distinct regional demands of American buyers. Creating a dealer and service network from nothing -- to say nothing of constructing a $1 billion assembly plant here -- takes hundreds of millions of dollars to do right. To wit: Every single French carmaker was wiped out of America by the early 1990s. So was Alfa Romeo and, until recently and only due to the Chrysler deal, Fiat. America, even for leading Japanese automakers like Toyota, has been and continues to be a tough market.
Suzuki, 26 years after settling into California and introducing its first US-spec car, has never looked worse. Not since 1988, when Consumer Reports published photos of a Suzuki Samurai tipping over in a handling test, has Suzuki bled this badly. Since 2005, the number of Suzuki dealerships has dropped by more than half, to 246, either through buyouts or resulting from absurdly slow sales (now estimated at five or fewer cars per month for most of the remaining dealers, according to Automotive News). Annual sales declined 74 percent from 2007 to 2011; Suzuki sold just under 27,000 cars last year in a market that’s now showing substantial overall growth after the brunt of the recession.
The cars, aside from the underrated Kizashi sedan and SX4 Crossover, which is the most affordable AWD car on the market, aren’t good. The Equator is a rebadged Nissan Frontier, which isn't exactly a re-badge of honor. The Grand Vitara is so far behind in terms of refinement as to be comical. The SX4 supposedly won’t be refreshed until late this year. It would have been wiser had Suzuki brought the stylish, sporty Swift hatchback from Europe when it killed off the Aerio, Verona, Reno, Forenza and XL7 during 2007 and 2009. Instead, Suzuki has tried to stay afloat with just four model lines.
In January, marketing director Steve Younan left. Shortly after the New York Auto Show in April -- after Suzuki skipped Detroit and Los Angeles -- public relations director Jeff Holland quietly left. Chris Young, director of sales, is somehow supposed to assume marketing duties. The US-based Suzuki Autos account on Twitter is gone. In its latest single-paragraph press release regarding June sales, it seems the company no longer states total annual sales or percent changes by model. After two weeks of unreturned phone calls and emails to the remaining PR staff -- including to president Seiichi Maruyama -- I couldn’t get a single comment. Nor could Automotive News. (Note: Suzuki did get back to me shortly before the publication of this piece, though they failed to answer any questions in a timely manner when presented with the final opportunity to do so.)
Ultimately, if Suzuki does quit the American car business, it will remain as a very fine manufacturer of motorcycles, ATVs, and marine engines. And despite its success at selling passenger and commercial vehicles in other major markets, Suzuki won’t be remembered here for its automobiles (maybe the wildly popular Sidekicks of the 1990s and the targa-top X-90 mini-ute, but not much more).
So, as we wait for Suzuki executives to tell us their plans, let’s have a look at some other successful Suzukis that don't involve automobiles or America:
Suzuki began life in 1909 as a manufacturer of weaving looms for silk and cotton. Even after producing its first car in 1955, the two-stroke 360cc Suzulight, the company didn’t form a separate automobile division until 1961.
Suzuki Power Free bicycle
Before it became known on the racing circuit for its powerful Hayabusa and GSX-R motorcycles, Suzuki made bicycles with a gas-powered two-stroke motor assisting the pedals. This one, strangely named “Power Free,” debuted in 1951.
Suzuki made its first wheelchair in 1974, though it wasn’t like this methanol-powered fuel cell wheelchair concept from 2006 that can go 25 electrified miles without filling up (better than the Prius Plug-in, an actual car). Another version bowed at the 2009 Tokyo Auto Show.
Suzuki prefab homes and sheds
In Japan, you can buy a prefabricated Suzuki shed to store your Suzuki ATV. Or, you can live in a Suzuki home or work in a Suzuki office trailer. They’ve been selling them since 1974. Incredible.
Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving and riding in cars he doesn't own. He was raised in Volvos and has grown to love fast, irresponsible vehicles of all kinds. He lives in Boston, is a member of the New England Motor Press Association, and has reported for The Boston Globe, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, and The Times of London.
It would be a big loss to loose Suzuki they are really good cars and suv's.
Funny i dont recall seeing hundreds of thousands of Suzukis being recalled like, Honda, Toyota, Ford, BMW or Chevy Cruz(catching on fire)Suzuki is still a huge seller in other countries especially Japan. I have not had problems with my Suzukis, thats why I have been loyal for last 7 years. It gets me t where I need to go and back
I bought Grand Vitara for my wife in 1999.
She lives in Chicago where winters are rough-never got problems on the road-215000 miles and still run great!
EXPLORE NEW CARS
MORE ON MSN AUTOS
ABOUT EXHAUST NOTES
Cars are cool, and here at MSN Autos we love everything about them, but we also know they're more than simply speed and style: a car is an essential tool, a much-needed accessory to help you get through your day-to-day life. What you drive is also one of the most important investments you can make, so we'll help you navigate your way through the car buying and ownership experiences. We strive to be your daily destination for news, notes, tips and tricks from across the automotive world. So whether it's through original content from our world-class journalists or the latest buzz from the far corners of the Web, Exhaust Notes helps you make sense of your automotive world.
Have a story idea? Tip us off at email@example.com.