Posted by: David Kiley on June 24, 2009
Japanese automaker Suzuki has long been the doormat of the U.S. auto industry. The company, known for making very good and competent motorcycles, scooters and recreational three and four wheel vehicles, has long made and sold cars and SUVs in the U.S. that either lack on styling, quality or both.
Who can forget Suzuki’s entry into the U.S. with the Suzuki Samurai, which Consumer Reports lambasted as unsafe back in the late 1980s. Since, it sold the Sidekick. Then came more substantial SUVs like the Grand Vitara. The SUV’s have always felt a bit cheap, with the quality of interior materials always suspect and using poor grades of plastic. But the car side of the business was always a hodgepodge of cheap econo-cars and odd blends of Japanese, South Korean and European influences. The Suzuki Verona, for example, was as anonymous a sedan as I ever saw.
So, it was with a gaping open mouth that I recently saw a TV ad from Suzuki comparing the SX4 to the MINI Cooper. Huh? Wha?
But here is the thing. While Suzuki still can’t style itself out of a paper bag, the SX4 is a dandy little car. While it lacks good fuel economy, the all-wheel drive I quite good for such a small car. I happened to have it as a loaner last winter when I woke up to almost a foot of new snow. I had to get to a TV appearance in downtown Ann Arbor, MI, and the SX4 powered through 12 inches of the wet-stuff in my driveway, street and some of the downtown unplowed streets. I would have hated to have the MINI that day. One of the reasons the SX4 gets crummy gas mileage for such a small car is, in fact, the weight of the all-wheel-drive system. But also, Suzuki, despite seemingly modeled after Honda in many ways, has never made fuel economy a priority in the cars it sells in the U.S.
The other thing long dogging Suzuki has been quality. It has languished near the bottom of J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study, as well as the firm’s Vehicle Dependability Study. But perhaps that is starting to change. In the new IQS, Suzuki moved from almost dead last a year ago to no. 9 in 2009, above industry average and well ahead of brands that have higher perceived quality, like Nissan, Volkswagen, BMW and Scion. The big reason seems to be the high ratings buyers of the SX4 are giving their vehicle.
Perhaps the audacity of comparing its best rated vehicle against the highly popular MINI, plus some better quality ratings that turn up in Internet research will finally get the public to take Suzuki more seriously. But some better fuel economy ratings and styling that doesn’t look like it came out of a high school art class, plus continued good quality ratings, will help too.