Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why does Suzuki still sell cars in the US?

Suzuki Equator
I like to think that I keep up with the car industry, but I had NO idea Suzuki sold the Equator pickup...let alone the fact that they have been selling the truck since 2009! I have never EVER seen one on the road. This lazy excuse of a Nissan Frontier rebadge is exactly why Suzuki has had trouble gaining traction in the US in the last 20 years. Most of Suzuki's cars have been sourced from other automakers, notably through its partnership with GM/Daewoo. Unless it changes its strategy, I give the Suzuki US brand another 5-10 years before going the way of Isuzu -- that is, extinct. Click through to read why...



Suzuki Swift
Let's start by discussing Suzuki's smallest offering, the Swift, which is not sold in the US, but should be. For all intents and purposes, this is a perfectly competent car: reasonably attractive, sporty, and has competitive interior materials. Suzuki has likely resisted bringing the latest-gen Swift to the states for a few reasons: 1) an inability to effectively market its brand, 2) historically soft subcompact sales in the US (until recently) and 3) the troubled past of the Swift name. When I think of the Swift, I instantly think of the lazily rebadged Geo/Chevy Metro, one of the ugliest, most pointless subcompacts ever to hit US dealerships...

Second-gen Suzuki Swift (aka Geo Metro)

Does this picture ring a bell? None of these cars have held up over time, including this ripe example.  The new Swift is not rebadged at all, but Suzuki would need to change the name to give the car a fresh start.

Suzuki SX4 / Liana
The SX4, formerly known as the Aerio, is also known as the Liana in other parts of the world. This car was co-developed by Fiat and was designed by Italdesign Guigiaro, so it definitely has the right ingredients for a winning design. The SX4 also has had a successful run in the rally circuit. In addition, over the last 10 years, the Liana/SX4 has been featured in Top Gear as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car both in the UK and US. Despite all this, I rarely see SX4s on the road, which I believe is the result of weak consumer marketing. Buyers of cheap compacts cars aren't necessarily watching Top Gear and WRC races. I also don't like the odd piece of glass between the A-pillar and door frame, which makes the car look cheap.

Suzuki Forenza
The now-defunct Forenza sedan / Reno hatchback, also designed by Italdesign, is a pair of reasonably attractive cars also sold under a plethora of names around the world, ranging from the Chevy Lacetti (as seen in the UK Top Gear), Holden Viva in Australia, Buick Excelle, Daewoo Nubira, and a variety of other names. After Daewoo left the US as an independent brand, its parent GM decided to pump their econoboxes through every partner and sub-brand possible, and the US got the Suzuki Forenza. At the end of the day, poor marketing killed the success of this bland yet competent car.

Suzuki Verona
The Verona, also now defunct, was another forgettable Italdesigned GM/Daewoo concoction, competent but not relevant enough to compete with the Camry, Accord, etc. If GM felt so highly about this design, wouldn't they have used it in place of their Malibu / Impala? The truth is, they didn't, so they gave the Verona to Suzuki to sell. Its success was miserable.

Suzuki Kizashi
Starting to see a trend? The Kizashi is Suzuki's replacement for the unmemorable Verona. It consistently performs well in comparison tests, but you see none on the road because of lack of marketing (and probably because of that ugly Lincoln Continental-style hump on the trunklid...ugly!). The front end, side profiles, and interior of the car are attractive, but I don't anticipate this car being successful enough to make a compelling business case in the US.

Suzuki Grand Vitara
Suzuki has historically seen success in the SUV market, and this is where they should continue to focus their efforts. The Grand Vitara (and the larger and slightly uglier XL7) is based on the Chevy Equinox platform, but is altered enough so as to mask the part-sharing. This is the one Suzuki you DO see on the road because it is consistent with the company's heritage. The Vitara is the modern-day replacement for the Sidekick, which was very successful in the US, along with its rebadged sister, the Chevy/Geo Tracker.

Suzuki Sidekick
I can't say the Sidekick has held up very well over the years, but at its time, it held a dominating position in the small, fun SUV category - a more refined alternative to the Jeep Wrangler. The convertible top (now absent from the Vitara) was an appealing feature for young buyers.

So, my advice for Suzuki? Marketing is not your forte, so stop selling cars no one knows about or cares about. Scale down your partnership with GM/Daewoo, which isn't helping you. Focus on the small SUV market where you actually have brand equity, and actually create something innovative people WANT to drive. Otherwise, you will always be an also-ran, no matter who you get to design your cars (ahem...Italdesign). Selling a poorly rebadged Nissan Frontier does not fool buyers, just as selling a rebadged Dodge Dakota did not fare well with Mitsubishi.

10 comments:

  1. Hey, I liked a bunch of those Suzukis . . . thanks for the history lesson!

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  2. So, who is Suzuki anyway? It seems like they are a mish-mosh of left over parts and designs no one wants but spent too much time and money on to discard altogether. There was a time when you saw TV ads for Suzuki. No more. The Tracker is the only actual Suzuki that I have seen on the street and wanted to know what brand it was. It looked cheap and fun!

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  4. "Didn't know Suzuki made/sold the Equator pickup" are you serious?

    If indeed Suzuki does decide to exit the US market it would be due to ignorance like this. If a car guy doesn't know his cars or history, imagine the plight of the general public!

    The main reason why Suzuki got a bad name here is (almost) entirely GM's rapid dump of rotten rebadged Daewoos as "Suzukis" into the market, completely ruining Suzuki's reputation in the US.

    They (Suzuki) have an enviable track record in Europe & (especially) Asia where they sell stuff they actually build themselves.
    I have travelled the world and driven most, if not all of their cars and can attest first-hand to their quality & reliability.
    The Swift is a fantastic little car; lots of fun to drive (especially in congested cities) with a shifter that would turn Miata owners green .
    The Kizashi feels and handles like cars that cost twice as much (the chassis and suspension are good enough to easily handle a LOT more power than it comes standard with) and the SX4 is the BEST AWD system for under 20K! (the only other true AWD systems in mass produced cars being Audi's Quattro system, Subaru's Symmetrical AWD and Mitsubishi's AWC) - none of the other (GM, Toyota etc.) useless marketing driven gimmicks even come close (though Nissan's torque vectoring system does deserve an honorable mention).
    And as for the Equator, maybe you ought to take a look at the US News Car & Truck Rankings every once a while. Not the Gospel Truth by any stretch of the imagination but definitely an aggregate indicator of the world of reviews and opinions (both intelligent & er.. not!) of all things cars.
    Oh and lets not forget the fully transferrable 100K mile warranty! Most people associate that deal with just Hyundai/Kia but forget that Suzuki & Mitsubishi have been doing it too along with 0% financing (yes 0% not 1.9% or 0.9%) on current model year vehicles!

    Having said all that however, Suzuki cannot be completely exonerated for their deeds (or a lack thereof).
    They have been guilty of irresponsible decisions (mainly during the GM/Daewoo era), launching models without adequate market research time and again, and a complete lack of good marketing/consumer education.
    Then again, the US arm runs on a shoestring budget as compared with their other markets (they even decided to skip a few auto shows this year completely with a statement saying that they will be concentrating their resources in more profitable markets).

    So there you have it, a broader/global perspective on what most Americans (don't) know about one of the world's biggest brands!

    PS - Fun Fact: Suzuki sells more cars globally than BMW, Dodge, Subaru & many others and are a bigger company than Honda in their native Japan!

    PPS - No I don't work for Suzuki :) My daily driver is actually a GM product: a Saturn Vue with a Honda V6 in it (0-60 in 6.9s) and my summer ride is my beloved Ducati Monster!

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  5. @ Baz: Thank you for your well thought out (and well written) note! I think we agree on more points than you may realize:

    But first off: before writing this post, I admit that I had never heard of the Equator. And to this day, I've never seen on one the road and have never seen an advertisement for the truck. That's probably because it's an irrelevant Frontier clone solely used to fill an empty hole in Suzuki's lineup. The Equator is ranked #4 on the US News ranking for small trucks, 2 spots behind the Nissan Frontier (why is that?!). I'd love to meet one of the 161 people who bought the Equator last month to understand what drove their purchase (http://www.goodcarbadcar.net/search/label/US%20Truck%20Sales?max-results=5). It was the lowest-selling pickup despite having a reasonable price...there were more Cadillac Escalade EXTs sold last month! I'm not saying the Equator is a bad product, but like you said, something in Suzuki's marketing strategy is clearly not working.

    Next, on Suzuki's global position: I agree that Suzuki has dominance in many other parts of the world...any trip to Europe, Latin America, or Asia will confirm that. This post purely aims to explore its peculiarly low standing in the US. In fact, Suzuki's dominance elsewhere begs the question of why they have not been able to crack the code here.

    I agree that the Swift and Kisashi are great products and constantly receive high marks from reviewers. Plus, throw in low financing and an awesome warranty, and you've got a great deal. The point I was making is one of confusion. Why haven't these great products further penetrated the US market (of course the answer is the brand has been riddled with bad product decisions, knockoffs and poor marketing, like you mentioned).

    At this point, Suzuki should "go big or go home"; either allocate more resources to make a big push in the US, or retreat completely, because the competition is way too high to survive otherwise.

    Btw, your Saturn Vue shares the underpinnings of the XL-7 via the Theta platform. I smell bias...j/k ;)

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