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The Suzuki Method

There are few things as topsy-turvy as the U.S. auto industry today. Which is why something called a Kizashi, a new sedan from Suzuki—yes, Suzuki—might actually get some traction.

Author Jonny Lieberman Photography Courtesy of American Suzuki Motor Corp.

Image – Courtesy of American Suzuki Motor Corp.

GO AHEAD AND try to name the bestselling car in Japan. Honda Accord? Toyota Camry? Nope. It’s the Suzuki Wagon R, which you’ve probably never heard of and most certainly never seen. In fact, not only has the diminutive Wagon R been Japan’s top car for five consecutive years, Suzuki has built over three million of them—huge numbers for the island nation. Suzuki sold over $30 billion worth of product in 2008— manufacturing 3.5 million motorcycles and ATVs and 2.3 million cars. In the rapidly expanding Indian megamarket, Suzuki controls nearly 50 percent of the passenger car segment. Impressive numbers, no doubt, especially considering the company’s struggles to get a toehold in the United States.

The last time a Suzuki generated any noise in the U.S. was way back in 1988, when Consumer Reports stated that the tiny off-roading Suzuki Samurai liked to roll over. While Suzuki disagreed with CR’s findings (to say the least), the damage was done. Like the Corvair, which had a poor safety record, and the Audi 5000, which was alleged by 60 Minutes to accelerate without warning, the Samurai—and by extension Suzuki—had what a publicist might call “an image problem.” Turns out Americans aren’t so keen on driving cars they perceive to be unsafe, no matter the actual facts. (The Corvair was eventually made safer before it was discontinued. The Audi 5000, it turned out, worked just fine, and 60 Minutes retracted its story.)

Although Suzuki continued to sell cars in the U.S. after the Samurai debacle, the models were dull and forgettable (heard anyone bragging about their Aerio lately?). Then in 2006, it released the SX4, a small, smart, sensible car codesigned with Fiat, which came fully loaded and with all-wheel drive for just under $20,000. Jaded automotive pundits murmured their approval, but Suzuki wanted them shouting the brand’s gospel from the rooftops. For that they’d need a great car. Enter the 2010 Kizashi, a midsize sedan that’s going to sell for less than other cars in its class. It might just be a game changer for the automaker.

The U.S. automotive scene is always in flux. A generation ago, half of Americans were as devoted as golden retrievers to “The General,” a.k.a. General Motors. Imports were for hippies, eccentrics and rich dudes with multiple ex-wives. Today, Toyota is jockeying with Volkswagen for the title of world’s largest automaker, while GM struggles to find its way out of an onerous bankruptcy. Likewise, Chrysler, emerging from Chapter 11 itself, was recently supplanted by Honda as the nation’s fourth-largest automaker.

While brand loyalty still plays a role in car purchases, at the end of the day, Americans are after a good deal. Which explains why Hyundai just built its one millionth car in North America, and why the company’s luxury flagship Genesis was named 2009 North American Car of the Year. Up is down, black is white. So can Suzuki pull a Hyundai? Reilly Brennan, editor-in-chief of AOL Autos, thinks so. “Suzuki is an underachiever in America,” he says. “If they can inject what they do in motorcycles into their car lineup, they have the makings of a product renaissance. The Kizashi moves them in the right direction.”

Roughly translated from Japanese, Kizashi means “great thing coming.” While it may not trip off the tongue, the name is as bold a statement as the car itself. This stylish four-door is aimed straight at the heart of the American car market—meant to compete with powerhouses like the Camry, Accord, Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion, all hugely successful cars backed by the biggest nameplates in the business.

It will also be competing with very competent midsize family sedans from the likes of Nissan, Mazda, Subaru and Hyundai. If all goes according to Suzuki’s plan, even people looking at Acuras and Audis might instead opt for a Kizashi.

The challenge is akin to selling denim against Levi’s and Wrangler.

It’s not going to be easy. As Todd Lassa, an analyst for Motor Trend, points out, “Suzuki’s push for North America ran smack into the worst automotive market since the Great Depression.” However, the Kizashi is a good starting point, he adds, because the price is right. Fully loaded, it costs a full $10,000 less than the Camry—an important discrepancy in a time of 10 percent unemployment.

In December, VW purchased a 20 percent stake in Suzuki—a direct bid to tap into its massive share of the Indian market. But, Lassa says, it’s also a way for Suzuki to grow in the U.S. “I think VW wants to foster Suzuki’s success in America,” he says. “And the long-term plan will likely mean building Suzukis— including the Kizashi—at VW’s new assembly plant in Tennessee.”

VW also senses that Suzuki is picking up on a demographic shift and wants to capitalize on it. While baby boomers drove Camrys and Accords, Suzuki believes their kids may be ready for an alternative.

“We really wanted to move the brand upscale,” says American Suzuki’s Jeff Holland. “If we’ve done everything right, the Kizashi will be a sharp contrast to past Suzuki offerings in that category.”

It’s a risky move, especially considering that Suzuki seems to be wagering all its chips on this one model. (Suzuki hasn’t announced the development of any new products for the U.S. after the Kizashi.) But as bets go, you could do worse.

L.A.-based writer JONNY LIEBERMAN used the Suzuki Method to learn the flute.


What’s so great about the Kizashi, anyway?

THE DASHING KIZASHI IS SURPRISINGLY EASY ON THE EYES. It may not be a bite-the-back-of-your-hand stunner, but considering that it competes against vehicles often described as “appliances,” its tight, sporty lines, solid, confident feel on the road, and chrome detailing set it well apart from the pack. Suzuki has grafted its considerable motorcycle know-how onto the car, creating a highly responsive suspension (tuned on the world’s toughest tracks, like the famed Nürburgring in Germany), surprisingly precise steering, and a 2.4-liter, six-speed engine that punches the air. Very little about this sportster says “basic.”

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