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’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.
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.