Choose your Suzuki Model
Suzuki has a history stretching back over a hundred years, but it only sold cars in the United States for about thirty of those. The small economical cars that made Suzuki so successful in Japan (and many other countries around the world) failed to catch on in the US. Still, Suzuki can be credited with many innovations developed for its small and quirky cars.
Michio Suzuki founded the Suzuki Loom Works in 1909 to build looms for silk production. At the time textiles were a booming industry in Japan, but Suzuki could tell that this situation would eventually change. In 1937, Suzuki started to experiment with automobile development. The prototype cars were powered by a water-cooled, four-stroke engine, fairly innovative for the time. Unfortunately, car production had to be put aside with the beginning of WWII.
Following World War II, Suzuki returned to the loom building business. Japan began to import cotton from the West, driving another boom in textiles. Fortune turned again in 1951 when there was a drop in the cotton market due to competition from new mills in cotton producing countries and synthetic materials like rayon.
Looking for an alternative business, Michio Suzuki again turned to motors. With Japan still recovering from war, though, there was little demand for traditional passenger cars. Most consumers wanted small-engined, economical motorcycles. In response, Suzuki built the Power Free — essentially a bicycle with a 50cc engine. The bike was geared in such a way that the rider could power it by pedaling, power it with the motor alone, or pedal with a power assist from the motor. In 1954, Suzuki officially changed its name to Suzuki Motor Co, Ltd.
The following year, Suzuki released its first production car, the Suzulight. The Suzulight kicked off a trend of lightweight, small-engine cars that are still popular in Japan, known as kei-cars. The Suzulight only had a 360cc engine, but it was very advanced for its time. It had front-wheel drive (FWD), rack and pinion steering, and a completely independent suspension before any of those features became common in passenger cars. The company went on to build a small van called the Suzulight Carry on stretched version of the Suzulight platform.
In 1963, Suzuki made its first inroads into the US market, when US Suzuki Motor Corp was established in Los Angeles, California. At the time, the company only sold motorcycles in the US. Suzuki followed up the Suzulight with another 360cc, FWD car called the Fronte. It was a sedan built on the Carry platform. To promote the car, Suzuki had Formula One driver Stirling Moss and motorcycle racer Mitsu Itoh drive two Frontes across Italy. The pair averaged just over 75 miles per hour on the trip — not bad for a car with only a 360cc engine.
The 1970s saw the introduction of one of Suzuki’s most iconic models, the Jimmy. The first generation Jimmy was officially designated the LJ10, with LJ standing for “light Jeep.” The name was apt since it only weighed about 1,300 pounds. The Jimmy was small too, less than three meters in total length. That meant it fit into Japan’s kei-car classification (like the Suzulight and Fronte before it), meaning it was taxed less than bigger vehicles. In order to keep the length short enough, Suzuki had to ship Jimmys with the spare tire in the rear seat.
Although Suzuki still wasn’t officially selling cars in the US, a company called International Equipment Co. did bring a few Jimmys into the country. The Jimmy proved to be fairly popular internationally. It was Suzuki’s first vehicle manufactured outside of Japan (in Pakistan), and over time became popular in Australia.
Suzuki Enters the US
In 1981, Suzuki entered into a deal with General Motors to sell cars in the US. GM bought a 5.3% stake in Suzuki at the time. In 1985, Suzuki of America Automotive Corp was established in La Brea California.
A new renamed version of the Jimmy known as the Samurai was introduced in 1984 and became the first Suzuki model officially sold in the US. In the intervening years, Suzuki’s engines had grown in size to 1 liter. The Samurai, like the Jimmy before it, remained light. Although the Samurai had limited power, some off-roaders favored it because its light weight kept it from getting bogged down in the mud.
Not everyone thought the Samurai was such a great design, though. In 1988, Consumer Reports rated the Samurai “not acceptable,” saying that it “easily roll[ed] over in turns.” Samurai sales, successful until that point, dwindled. Eight years later, in 1996, the same year the Samurai was discontinued in the US, Suzuki sued Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports), arguing that the testers had gone out of their way to deliberately tip the Samurai. As evidence, Suzuki provided a video where testers cheered when the Samurai tipped. A former Consumer Union employee (who the company had dismissed), claimed that a senior editor at the magazine told the staff “If you don’t find someone to roll this car, I will.” In turn, Consumers Union claimed to have internal memos showing Suzuki was aware of rollover potential as early as 1985. In the end, Suzuki settled the suit out of court in 2004.
In addition to the Jimmy, Suzuki also started to import its small FWD coupe, the Cultus, in 1985, under the name Suzuki Forsa. Through the partnership with GM, the Cultus was also rebadged as a Chevy Sprint. The Forsa and Sprint were simple affairs with a 1-liter, carbureted engine and leaf spring rear suspension. The second generation was sold as the Suzuki Swift or the Chevy Metro or Geo Metro. Eventually, the engine was increased to a 1.3L fuel injected one, and later a 1.6L.
Suzuki introduced another small SUV into the US market in 1989. The Suzuki Sidekick (known as the Escudo in Japan) was the Samurai’s slightly bigger brother. GM also rebadged the Sidekick as the Geo Tracker. Like the Samurai, the Sidekick was a two-door SUV. It featured a 1.6L engine and four-wheel drive.
In 1995, Suzuki tried its hand at another passenger car. The Suzuki Esteem (the Cultus Crescent in Japan), replaced the Swift, competing in the compact car class. The Esteem was available with the same 1.6L engine used in the Sidekick. That made it relatively easy to hook up the Sidekick’s 4WD in the Esteem as well. The Esteem was available as a hatchback, sedan, or wagon (Suzuki’s first).
The following year, Suzuki introduced yet another small SUV, the X-90. The X-90 effectively replaced the Samurai. Unlike the utilitarian Samurai and Sidekick, the X-90 had a quirky look, basically resembling a lifted two-seater roadster with removable T-tops. It was used by energy drink Red Bull’s marketing team but failed to gain much popularity. Suzuki had to cut pricing for the X-90 by 25% the year after its debut.
Even in spite of that recent failure, GM chose to tighten its relationship with Suzuki by raising its stake in the company from about 3% to about 10% in 1998. That same year, Suzuki introduced a mid-size SUV, the XL-7. The XL-7 used a stretched version of the Escudo chassis, and a 2.7L V6. It was the lowest price SYV with three rows of seats in the US. For this reason it won the Consumer’s Digest Best Buy award. It was also the only mid-size SUV available with a manual transmission in the US. The next year, Suzuki released its next small SUV. Also based on the next generation of the Escudo, it was sold as the Vitara, rather than the Sidekick, in the US.
GM increased its stake in Suzuki to 20% in 2000. The following year, the Aerio replaced the Esteem as Suzuki’s compact car. The Aerio used a 2L engine, eventually bumped up to a 2.3L, in the US market. FWD was standard, with all-wheel drive (AWD) as an option. It was the most affordable AWD car in the US during its lifetime. The Aerio’s European counterpart the Liana (an acronym for Life in a New Age) is most famous for its use on the TV series Top Gear. In the “Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car” segment celebrities would try to set competitive lap times driving the Liana on the Top Gear test track.
During the mid-2000s, Suzuki also tried to sell two rebadged Daewoo sedans: the compact Forenza (the Daewoo Lacetti) and the mid-size Verona (the Daewoo Magnus). The company was struggling with sales at the time, though, and GM sold off much of its Suzuki stock, reducing its stake in the company from 20% to 3%. In many ways this marked the beginning of the end for Suzuki in the US.
Suzuki Leaves the US Market
Suzuki did try a few more ventures in the US, but ultimately they did not prove to be enough. In 2006, the company combined its experience with SUVs and compact cars to design a compact crossover, the SX4. A sedan version, the SX4 sport followed. The SUV was available with FWD or AWD, while the sedan only came with FWD. The sedan also came standard with a Garmin GPS system.
Suzuki also tried to branch out into a new market by rebadging the Nissan Frontier pickup truck as the Suzuki equator. It was available with a four seat or five seat cab, and a 2.5L inline four or a 4.0L V6. The starting price was under $18,000 which should have made it appealing to budget-conscious buyers. Peterson’s 4Wheel & Off-Road magazine also named it 4x4 of the year, which should have added to the appeal. Despite all that, fewer than 6,000 Equators have sold since the model debuted in 2009.
The Kizashi, released in 2010, was another attempt for Suzuki to branch out. Other than the Daewoo-built Verona, it was Suzuki’s first mid-size car in the US. The name Kizashi literally translates from Japanese as an “omen” or a “sign.” The name was intended to foresee a positive change in fortune, but in retrospect a negative reading of the name would be more accurate.
From 2007 to 2012, Suzuki’s US sales dropped from over 100,000 to fewer than 30,000 vehicles. The 2008 banking collapse slowed lending, which, in turn, slowed vehicle sales. This hit smaller companies like Suzuki especially hard. In 2012 Suzuki filed for bankruptcy, and began to pull its car selling operations out of the US. It formed Suzuki Motor of America to continue to sell motorcycles as well as car parts in the US. While Suzuki’s small, minimalist cars didn’t find overwhelming success in the US, they sell well at home in Japan as well as in emerging markets like India.