Is Suzuki Succeeding in the US? Road & Track Thinks So.

By Chris Haak

Call it naïveté, call it giving folks the benefit of the doubt, call it whatever you want to.  But as a long-time buff book reader (I subscribed to Motor Trend continuously between 1987 and July 2010, or about 23 years), I never paid much mind to critics that accused media outlets of providing favorable editorial coverage for certain manufacturers and vehicles in return for advertising dollars.  Is the Motor Trend Car of the Year award driven by the best car, or by the best advertiser?  I’d always assumed that these magazines would take the high road and provide a fair and accurate description of the industry and its vehicles so that their readers could make informed choices when considering how to part with their hard-earned money.

But sitting at the breakfast table this morning with my newly-arrived October 2010 Road & Track, reading a single paragraph almost made me spit out my Cookie Crisp cereal.  At once, this single paragraph caused me to completely discount nearly everything else that I had read and was about to read in this magazine, and indeed, in many magazines.  The paragraph in question is found in R&T‘s “New Cars for 2011″ section, a 28-page spread that highlights the changes to 2011 model-year vehicls with nary a critical comment.  That in and of itself is not reason to raise eyebrows, as “buyer’s guides” that tiptoe around a car’s shortcomings are certainly nothing new, but here’s what raised my hackles.

Suzuki
Suzuki’s huge success following the introduction of the Kizashi this past year should only get better in 2011.  That’s because now you’ll be able to equip both GTS and SLS models with the Sport trim, which adds (among other things) a more aggressive front fascia and lower grille, chrome body side sills, foglight bezels with chrome surrounds, a trunk-mounted spoiler, 10-mm lower ride height and new 18-inch wheels that are also lighter by 2 lb. apiece.  If you decide to get navigation, you’ll have the option of a rear-view camera as well.

Lucky for you, R&T put this entire 2011 feature online already.  Here’s the Suzuki portion, and here’s the full 2011 new-car feature.

Now, I think the Suzuki Kizashi is a fine car.  It’s too small relative to the dominant players in the high-volume midsize sedan segment, but its size is something of an asset, except in rear-seat passenger space.  The smaller size makes it lighter than the competition for more lithe handling and better fuel economy.  But the problem is, much to my own personal disappointment, the Kizashi is stinking up the sales charts so far.  The car sold just 478 units in August 2010, and only 3,480 through the first 8 months of 2010.  When I wrote my review of the Kizashi, I began by acknowledging that Suzuki is fighting for its life in this market, not calling anything a “huge success.”

By comparison, Toyota sold 30,764 Camrys in August (64 times more than Suzuki sold Kizashis) and 220,061 Camrys year to date (63 times more).  And those Camry numbers are down compared to the 2009 Cash-for-Clunkers-fueled spike.  Fortunately for Suzuki, we can’t compare Kizashi sales to last August, because that car was not yet on sale then.

However, we can look at Suzuki’s other models.  Forgetting about the anomaly of comparing C4C-fueled August 2009 against August 2010, the year to date numbers for the SX4 compact are just 7,497 units (down 53 percent from the same period in 2009).  The Equator pickup (a rebadged Nissan Frontier) sold just 965 year to date, down 51 percent.  The Grand Vitara SUV – the company’s best seller – sold only 3,084 units, down 50 percent from 2009 levels.  As Suzuki has phased out the XL7, Forenza/Reno, and Verona, the three-model lineup is all that it is putting on the market at this time.  Altogether, the company’s year to date sales volume is 15,331 vehicles through August 31, 2010.

It would be easy for me to tell you which models sold more copies than did Suzuki’s entire lineup, except that there are a lot of examples.  Subaru – another small Japanese manufacturer – sold about as many Foresters and Outbacks in August alone than Suzuki did its entire lineup throughout all of 2010 so far (15,287 Foresters and Outbacks against 15,331 Suzukis).

The only reason to point out these ugly sales figures – in a new light-vehicle market that’s up 8 percent year to date, by the way – is not to pick on Suzuki, but to call attention to how ludicrous R&T‘s statement calling Suzuki a “huge success.”  Surely, R&T‘s editors have access to the same sales data that we do, and can see the same trends that I pointed out above.  Could it have anything to do with editorial partnerships?

Road & Track co-promoted a record-setting speed record attempt at Bonneville in a modified Suzuki Kizashi, and posted a series of videos and features on the attempt.  You can click here to see them if you’re interested.  Not only did Suzuki presumably provide the car and pay for its customization (roll cage, lowered suspension, different wheels and tires, full roll cage, parachute, and other safety equipment), but R&T‘s Sam Mitani actually was the driver of the car on its record-setting run.  One humorous comment by someone named Grant on the R&T video feature page linked above noted, “You guys are a little obsessed with the Kizashi! Seems like there’s another story about it every week.”  Indeed.

R&T also happens to have a Kizashi in its long-term test fleet.  The magazine gets use of a free car for a year in return for periodic coverage in the print book and on the website.  Too, there are numerous other road tests and reviews of the Kizashi, which is curious, considering what a marginal player this car is in the context of the overall new-car market.

Yet, in the summary of R&T‘s June 2010 article about the 2011 Kizashi Sport, the writer basically says that the Sport package is largely cosmetic.  Hardly the type of change that should make Suzuki’s “huge success” “only get better” in 2011.  Don’t allow yourself to confuse that June article with the March 2010 driving impressions piece on the same car.  Or the coverage of the car from the 2010 New York Auto show, where it made its official debut.

Then there’s the first look piece from July 2009 – where they didn’t get to drive the 2010 Kizashi, but only to look it over and sit in it, and then the first drive piece from October 2009, in which future Bonneville record-setter Sam Mitani absolutely gushed about the car.  Again – it’s a very good car that I thoroughly enjoyed driving, but the only thing successful about it is the way it pleases auto journalists who don’t have to squeeze their kids into the back seat, and buyers for whom 180-185 horsepower is sufficient.

I’m not accusing Road & Track of being in the pocket of Suzuki, though given the disproportionately favorable coverage of the Kizashi and Suzuki, there is at the very least the appearance of a lack of objectivity in the magazine’s coverage of the struggling Japanese automaker.  There are plenty of whispers around the industry that Suzuki and Mitsubishi may both be on the way out of the US market, which would hardly be a surprise.  Mitsubishi’s only real product news for the next 18 months is its i-MiEV electric vehicle and its Outlander Sport compact crossover, as it ponders the future of its woefully underutilized US plant in Illinois.

Suzuki might be able to somewhat turn its fortunes around if it could get the Swift subcompact onto our shores; the car is at this point basically federalized, but pricing had not been set, and the company’s Japanese production has become extremely costly in light of the Yen’s strength against the dollar.  Also, with Volkswagen owning a sizable stake in Suzuki and having its own ambitions in the US, the companies have to coordinate their activities here.  Margins are already small on subcompacts, and the Yen is just killing Suzuki, which has no US production to fall back on.  In response, the company cut its marketing budget in the US, so there’s not even a Kizashi ad in the October Road & Track.

Wait, is that last sentence true given what we’ve discussed above?  You be the judge, but I have my doubts.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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9 Comments

  1. I got my copy of R&T two days ago and thought exactly the same thing. It seemed the relationship between Suzuki and R&T is extremely cozy. You forgot to mention the “advert” for the R&T webpage in the front of the mag featuring coverage of the Bonneville run. The Suzuki was in the magazine 3-4 times.

  2. I lol’d at ” I almost spit out my Cookie Crisp cereal.”

  3. I’ve found that auto journalists in general don’t care much for numbers. They prefer to write from the gut. And this writer’s gut (informed by Suzuki’s PR) could well have told him that the Kizashi has been a big success. After all, the parking lot at work seems to be full of them.

  4. I should add that Suzuki won’t be turning around in the U.S. until it’s willing to spend real money on marketing and distribution. It’s dealers, which have been declining, tend to look like second-rate used car stores.

  5. Whilst you may validly accuse R&T of favouritism….bear in mind that Suzuki operates in more markets that just the US.

    So whilst you feel you can describe Suzuki as ‘struggling’ I feel I could describe you as ‘jingoistic’.

    Put simply, North America is not the centre of the world. And Suzuki are actually doing extremely well outside of North America despite being a minnow in the car manufacturing world.

    I suspect that the intern at R&T has been lazy (like many journos these days) and simply transcribed the Kishazi media release which itself was probably transcribed by equally lazy Suzuki PR from the Europe/RoW media relase where this car has been very good for Suzuki…

    So there’s probably no conspiracy…..just lazy journalisim/promotion/blogging all round.

  6. Seano, we’re aware of Suzuki’s favorable market position in India (http://www.autosavant.com/2010/08/13/report-maruti-suzuki-planning-low-cost-alto-to-compete-with-nano/ for example) and that the company does much better elsewhere than in the US.

    But when a US-centric print mag is describing changes to the company’s US lineup and makes that statement, they’re not talking about Suzuki in the rest of the world. Had they called the Kizashi a critical success, I would have nor even batted an eye. Unfortunately, it’s not a sales success here, nor is the rest of the lineup. Perhaps with some marketing muscle and good cars sold elsewhere (like the Swift), it’d be a different story.

  7. I really didnt read any of the comments, because I dont care. My comment is simply this. This is my 14th New Car. And I just happen to be shopping for my wife a new little AWD car. We just happen by suzuki, test drove the SX4, loved it, but the wife wanted to think about it. But the Kizashi SLS, fully loaded, sat right next to where we parked. My wife said, thats your car. I was confused, she said lets drive it. I did. And compared to my Inifiniti G35, I prefer this kizashi by far. Yes, kizashi wont do 0-60 in 6 seconds, but who cares. Its about comfort, sportiness, and MPG. And this car has AWD. And at $21,000 drive off. I took it. Bought it and cant figure why others do not recognize the incredible value and build this car has. Its simply greed or uneducated. As I was. We loved the suzuki so much, we are buying SX4 AWD. Simply amazing cars.

  8. I AM AWAITING THE LAUNCH OF KIZASHI IN INDIA. GENERALLY, (MARUTI) SUZUKI CARS ARE DEPENDABLE AND PROVIDES TROUBLE FREE DRIVING.
    THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING IS IN EATING, & I WILL RESERVE MY COMMENTS TILL I TEST-DRIVE KIZASHI.

    MOHAN MATHEWS

  9. Suzuki who?

    Very few in the United States know the suzuki brand…and don’t really care to..

    Sales are weak…..and brand recognition even weaker.

    The Kisashi is a good looking enough vehicle but I don’t see how or why its better than many vehicles in its market segment.

    Wouldn’t be a loss if Suzuki packed up and left the USA along with Mitsubishi…

    Sorry if it seems rude but its really just an opinion on this nice looking but ineffective vehicle brand.

    Maybe the price of gas rising up to 5 dollars a gallon will help.

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