An automaker you should know more about

Warren Brown
Columnist May 13, 2011

I’ve been trying to figure out Suzuki Motor Corp. — an almost invisible automobile retailer in the United States.

How can a Japan-based company producing some of the best, most affordable passenger cars available have so little presence in the world’s most lucrative market for new vehicle sales?

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

How little?

American Suzuki, Suzuki’s U.S. sales arm, recently issued a news release saying that its total April 2011 sales were up 9 percent over its sales for the same month a year earlier. That seems admirable, until you look at the numbers — 2,132 Suzuki models sold in April 2011 vs. 1,950 in April 2010.

That top number would represent a bad selling month for the least popular product offered by any of Suzuki’s mainstream rivals. That’s too bad. It means many car buyers in the United States are missing a good deal.

Consider American Suzuki’s single biggest seller, the Kizashi sedan, whose sales for the year to date are up 111 percent compared with 2010, representing 2,571 cars sold so far in 2011 compared with 1,219 during the same stretch of last year. That sales improvement would be great for a super-exotic automobile, whose market penetration is restricted by price. But it’s lousy for any car company competing with the likes of Toyota, Ford, Honda and Chevrolet.

So, what gives?

I am convinced, after driving several versions of the Kizashi, including the subject of this week’s column, the 2011 Kizashi Sport SLS sedan, that Suzuki can make cars better than, or certainly as good as, those offered by any rival. But there is a missing “something” that prevents Suzuki automobiles from attracting meaningful market attention.

I spent much time and many miles in the front-wheel-drive Kizashi Sport SLS trying to divine the mystery of Suzuki’s near-phantom performance in the United States. I found no defects in build quality. The Sport SLS is put together as nicely as any other compact family sedan. Exterior styling is arguably odd — with that big, Samurai-like “S” dominating a grille that otherwise seems lifted from Audi.

But the Kizashi’s interior is one of the industry’s best, especially in the top Sport SLS version. Soft-feel vinyl on the instrument panel, supple leather seating surfaces and an ergonomically smart display of gauges with soft, blue backlighting give the appearance of a car much more expensive than its sub-$25,000 base price tag. Care seems to have been the primary concern in putting the SLS together, an attribute also evident in its performance engineering.

The car won’t woo buyers who are obsessed with miles per gallon. But at an estimated 20 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, burning regular gasoline, it won’t disappoint buyers who don’t mind shedding some mileage advantage in pursuit of a spirited road romp. The Kizashi Sport SLS is equipped with a 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine (185 horsepower, 170 foot-pounds of torque). And it is one of the few compact family sedans in the United States sold with a genuine, loves-to-be-shifted, six-speed manual gearbox as standard equipment.

Maybe the problem is that Suzuki has too little marketing and too few dealers. The only time I hear or see Suzuki battling for what the car industry calls “consumer share of mind” is in the Pacific Northwest, or the Southeast, where most of its estimated 290 U.S. dealers are concentrated. By comparison, Toyota, struggling to hold on to its spot as the top sales leader here and abroad after the devastation of assembly and supplier plants in Japan’s recent tsunami, has 1,445 U.S. stores. A more telling point, the average Toyota dealer sells more than 1,800 new vehicles annually, compared with an average Suzuki outlet that is lucky to sell 83 new vehicles in a year.

Big sales yield big marketing muscle. Suzuki has neither. But I think there’s something else. American consumers tend to equate the name “Suzuki” with motorcycles, and not just any motorcycles. The “consumer share of mind” there is of those super-fast, super-noisy, super-slick, often annoying buzzy motorbikes that speed past automobiles on highways or on otherwise quiet suburban streets.

The experience tends to blend “Suzuki” with “adolescence,” something you, as an adult, want to forget, make go away and shut up.

But maybe it’s something more profound. American Suzuki Motor Corp. was set up in 1963 in Brea, Calif. Problem is, it never has really left a West Coast mind-set in which little has to be said or done to explain “Japanese import.” By comparison, not one of Suzuki’s Japanese rivals — Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Toyota — settled for regional success in the United States. All placed assembly and supplier plants, as well as retail operations, in many parts of the country.

Here’s hoping that Suzuki catches on, and does so quickly. As demonstrated by the Kizashi, the company can make darn good, attractive and affordable products. But what good is a good product if no one knows it’s there?

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