By on July 16, 2012

Reader Mark Stevenson submitted this essay on life as a Suzuki owner. Please welcome Mark as he shares his unique perspective on a brand that we overlook too often. – DK

No matter how perfect a family appears on the outside, dig deeper and you’re bound to find secrets of drama, betrayal, and, more often than not, profound loss. Interpersonal relationships between family members can be complex – veins of hatred filled with love and the inverse being equally true.

My family is no different. But, in addition to all those feelings being bestowed upon each other, we’ve shared them with Suzuki, a car company that made exactly what we needed and then took it all away.

After Derek touched on how Suzuki has become the automotive equivalent of a hospital patient on life support in a multi-year coma, I wanted to take it upon myself to share with you, and Suzuki, a story of how a once plucky car company betrayed us, its loyal customers, and why we will never go back to the stylized “S” brand born in Japan.

Suzuki, this is an intervention. But, as with any intervention, some history is in order.

In 1992, my father needed a rugged, light-weight, capable 4×4 work vehicle that would return decent gas mileage and keep all his gear secure and safe from the elements. After looking at countless small trucks and SUVs, he happily settled on our first Suzuki: a lightly optioned, long wheelbase, 4-door Sidekick. My father thrashed it relentlessly along the logging roads of Cape Breton Island and the northern mainland of Nova Scotia. It was never clean. It was noisy. It didn’t even think about trying to be fast. But, “the Zuki” as it was affectionately called, was incredibly capable and easy on the wallet. The little 1.6L four-pot churned out less than 100hp and that was all that was needed. Or, as a Rolls Royce salesman would state, “adequate.”

The Suzuki had gained such a great reputation at my father’s workplace that, within a couple of years, a number of his co-workers also purchased Sidekicks as their own work vehicles. At one point in the mid-90s, there were no less than four Suzukis parked in the lot at his office. This was the woodsman’s F150.

In following years, Dad bought no less than four Suzukis from the same dealer – two more Sidekicks and two Vitaras. With each successive purchase, the vehicles got more powerful, less fuel efficient, less capable, and completely lost their initial charm.

His final Vitara, a Canadian-built 2004 model, was equipped with an underpowered V6, horrible automatic slushbox (this is the first Suzuki he owned that wasn’t a manual), nasty body cladding, and body parts prone to east coast rust.

Yet, my Dad drove the Vitara for eight years, until passing it on to me earlier this year. Why would he drive such a dreadful vehicle for eight whole years?

In 2005, Suzuki introduced the new Theta derived Grand Vitara, which shared a number of components with the Chevrolet Equinox. The drivetrain was still a RWD/4X4 affair, but the body-on-frame construction was gone, weight was gained, luxury appointments were given, and the new Grand Vitara was aimed at a completely different demographic – soccer moms looking for a soft-roader.

Suzuki could have stayed the course of building a niche product with a fairly broad appeal. They had built a reputation in North America with a very loyal customer base. After introducing the Samurai in Canada in 1980, Suzuki started importing the badge-engineered Suzuki Cultus – known to us in the Western world as the Chevrolet Sprint, Pontiac Firefly, and Geo Metro – for General Motors, and soon after partnered with the Detroit automaker to build a large plant in Ingersoll, Ontario to produce the new Sidekick.

In the 90s, you couldn’t drive 10 feet without seeing a Sidekick or one of the wonderfully badge-engineered General Motors offerings. Over the Sidekick’s lifespan, it had been sold as a Suzuki, Chevrolet, GMC, Pontiac, Geo, and Asuna. But, somehow, that didn’t affect the mini-ute’s reputation.

So, what went wrong? Why will we and so many other Suzuki loyalists never go back to the brand?

Just like Isuzu and Saab, Suzuki’s successes in North America have been based on its own sound judgment while their failures have been tied to General Motors. The Japanese automaker lost its way in the success of the GM partnership. It started to inherit the Detroit method of doing business while forgetting its own philosophies. Instead of Bowtie & Co. using Suzuki’s engineering, GM forced its own products on the plucky little automaker. Suzuki became GM’s discount brand, diluted and with no identity to call its own. Compare that with Subaru, a company steadfast in its own brand identity, and it’s clear to see who won out.

Suzuki is still on this doomed path. Save the Kizashi, nothing in the current American Suzuki range was born from the automaker’s DNA in Hamamatsu, Japan. And even then, the Kizashi – a widely well-regarded mid-size sedan among the automotive press – isn’t what Suzuki’s loyal brand base needs.

Suzuki, I don’t want a Nissan Frontier, Fiat Sedici, or a butched-up Chevrolet Equinox.

I want a Suzuki.

Until you become your old self again, you are not welcome in our driveway. As with any dysfunctional relationship, someone must put their foot down and end it unless significant changes are made. You gave us something amazing and we loved you for it. But, you changed and took it away.

Please, Suzuki, we want you back.

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40 Comments on “Memoirs Of A Suzuki Loyalist...”

  • avatar

    We purchased (new) a Chevy Tracker with the underpowered V6 and horrible automatic. This vehicle, on the highway, got 20 MPG and was smaller than a CR-V. It had electrical issues. The battery died twice under warranty. I cannot remember all the problems we had, but we traded it in less than 3 years. We purchased a Mini Van, which was about 1000 pounds heavier, 500 cc bigger V6 engine about 50% more internal room and it got the same gas mileage of the smaller Tracker. How sad is that? Never again a Suzuki car. I did purchase a Suzuki Motorcycle. It was a great bike.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark Stevenson

      The Vitara I am driving right now had to have its SEAT BELTS replaced. Yes, seat belts. This should be an item on a vehicle that NEVER needs service. Yet, the driver’s belt has now been replaced twice and a rear belt has been replaced once. Mental.

      If I found a mid-90s Sidekick in good condition, I would have it in a heartbeat over the Vitara and its clunky box of gears it tries to pass off as a transmission.

  • avatar

    I too have owned Suzuki bikes and loved them. Guess GM isn’t into bikes.

    • 0 avatar

      the lord they aren’t. or we’d have a hyabusa based off of some weird hybrid of the gmt3600 and zeta platforms, that was powered by a single stroke briggs and stratton.

      and there’d be some weird bowtie version that combined tahoe with suburban and SS that weighed 300 pounds more because it needs body cladding.


  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    “Just like Isuzu and Saab, Suzuki’s successes in North America have been based on its own sound judgment while their failures have been tied to General Motors”
    I disagree. Saab was in a downward spiral when GM bought it. They simply prolonged the inevitable shutdown. The brand could not exist soley on the ever dwindling number of Saab fans to buy over priced cars.
    Same thing for Suzuki. They failed to keep prices low enough to overlook the shortcomings of their offerings. Going “up market’ while abandoning your base customers has a downside.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark Stevenson

      Felix — you are probably right about that. But, dealing with GM is like going to the mafia for money. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, and while the short-term gains were tempting, the long-term situation is not going to work in your favour.

    • 0 avatar

      “The brand could not exist soley on the ever dwindling number of Saab fans to buy over priced cars.”

      But it’s more likely that Saab fans would have bought overpriced Saabs rather than what GM offered, which was overpriced Opels with Saab badges.

      Speaking of Saab and GM, the best thing that came out of that mess was the 9-2x, which was probably the nicest Impreza ever made. And like Mark said, you really have to hand it to Subaru and its ability to keep focus, know who they are, and turn lemons into lemonade. GM wants a Saabaru SUV? Hand ’em the Tribeca. GM cancels the Saabaru SUV? Subaru adds the Saab styling bits to the Tribeca, gets a refresh for free. The Scion FR-S? A Toyota-badged Subaru coupe made with Toyota cash plus Toyota direct injection technology Subaru couldn’t afford to develop on its own. In short, Suzuki could have taken a few lessons from Subaru on how to dance with elephants.

    • 0 avatar

      Although they may not have seemed like it, saabs were great to drive and the safest cars on the road. It seemed overpriced because you couldn’t see half of what you were paying for, and the average consumer didn’t understand that.

  • avatar

    Aren’t you selling the SX4 short by dismissing it as a Fiat Sedici? From what I’ve been able to find Suzuki did all the development for the car while Fiat contracted Giugiaro for the styling and Suzuki sells like twice as many worldwide as Fiat. It’s less than 3000 lbs and has switchable 2wd/4wd (but don’t think it has low-range) and is rated at 30mpg highway. Besides the fact it’s car-based (and what isn’t, these days?) it doesn’t seem to me to be too far removed from a Sidekick.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark Stevenson

      Selling it short? Maybe a little. But, bottom line, the SX4 came on the market in 2006. It is a six-year-old model with no announced plans to offer a new model or a replacement. It may have AWD available as an option, but that’s its ONLY trick these days. Everything the SX4 can do, another car on the market can do better. It has absolutely zero charm. It isn’t even cool to own one in an ironic sense.

      • 0 avatar

        A coworker recently traded his SX4 and bought a Chevy Sonic LTZ with the 1.4 turbo engine. He said the fuel economy in the SX4 was a lot less than he hoped for but the Sonic was much better. So apparently Suzukis are so bad that people are dumping them for Korean GM products. Scary!

      • 0 avatar

        The SX4 was on my list a few years ago but the estimated mileage was far too low. An automatic was listed at 28 Hwy, for a small car that’s pretty darn low. Everything else in it’s class was in the mid 30s.
        From the tests I read the RPMs on the highway seemed really high, Suzuki should have gone with a higher final drive ration. After all, it has enough horsepower to move the car along, why gear it down and ruin the fuel economy?

  • avatar

    I don’t understand the betrayal aspect. No car company stands still; they have to try to innovate, refine, and cater to the constantly shifting tastes of the market.

    Suzuki gave your dad and his coworkers exactly the vehicle that they needed at exactly the right time. But lightning rarely strikes twice. It wasn’t “amazing”, it was an adequate vehicle that coincidentally fit your needs.

    People may have a bad experience with a Suzuki and never drive one again, and not recommend it to anyone. But that’s not the whole Suzuki story. There are plenty of other owners who loved their Suzukis – 4×4 or not, and which served them faithfully, and would recommend them to others. Who is right? It depends on your experience.

    It sounds like your dad and his buddies had good experiences. But I wouldn’t call Suzuki’s path away from his and your tastes a “betrayal.” In any relationship of two people (or a person and a company), sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and you need to “see other people”.

    That’s all that happened here. I don’t get the self-victimization. When you buy from a tiny niche import manufacturer with R&D and marketing budgets smaller than some congressional candidates’ war chests, there are going to be risks involved.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark Stevenson

      I wholeheartedly agree with you in that any business, automaker or not, has to continually shift its focus to grow its market. But, the issue that I and many who were loyal to the brand have is HOW they shifted.

      When Suzuki re-aimed the Grand Vitara at its new demographic, they went half way. A RWD, non-luxury, “small” SUV that was supposed to be desired by soccer moms and enthusiast dads. They struck a chord with neither.

      As they say, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Suzuki wanted two birds in the hand. Instead of just trying to coax another one over, Suzuki threw the bird they had into the air and awkwardly tackled the bush, hoping to catch two birds.

      And let’s not pretend Suzuki is a small company. They are bloody massive. They also have some incredible products in the Swift, Wagon R, and Jimny. When Toyota was riding the Scion xB gravy train, Suzuki could have brought the Wagon R over here to bring the fight to Beige Co. Instead, American Suzuki made the decision to sell Daewoo products over their own Japanese-engineered offerings (see Suzuki Swift+ and Suzuki Verona).

      • 0 avatar

        “American Suzuki made the decision to sell Daewoo products over their own Japanese-engineered offerings”

        It’s not that simple. Politically and financially, Suzuki and GM were pretty deeply in bed with each other to the point that GM’s chairman John Smith got a seat on Suzuki’s board and, as part of GM’s takeover of Daewoo, Suzuki ended up buying a 15% stake in GMDAT. The rebadged Suzuki/Daewoos came pretty quickly after that and I seriously doubt that American Suzuki, as a subsidiary, had the option of rejecting the Verona/Forenza and footing the bill for federalizing the alternatives.

        “But I wouldn’t call Suzuki’s path away from his and your tastes a “betrayal.””

        True. It’s more like a beloved family member (Suzuki) getting seduced by a rich crack dealer (GM). The beloved family member then loses his way, wrecks his relationship with the rest of his family members, and is now wasting away on his deathbed. Yeah, that’s more like it.

      • 0 avatar
        Mark Stevenson

        BigWill —

        Regardless of whether the decision was a direct or indirect decision on behalf of Suzuki stalwarts in the company, the decision to bunk with GM was ultimately theirs to make, just as it was theirs to break off the “partnership” with Volkswagen. My above mafia comment applies here as well.

        And, as I mentioned in the article, Suzuki needs an intervention. Someone in that company needs to sit down, look at their products and say, “We have done better and we can do better.” The substances they were smoking/snorting/shooting in Detroit and Seoul over the past 10 years have really rotted away at the creative part of Suzuki’s brain.

      • 0 avatar

        No intervention is required or, for that matter, will happen for several reasons:

        1) There’s a distinction that’s being blurred between Suzuki Motor and American Suzuki. Suzuki Motor *is* doing better – last year’s net sales were over US$31 billion, they produced nearly 3 million autos in FY2011, they’re the #1 auto company in India, they’re building factories to handle expansion in Asian markets, they’re developing good product like the new Swift, Kizashi, and Wagon R. What’s *not* doing better is American Suzuki who, like most subsidiaries, is not independent and is at the mercy of the parent corporation.

        2) American Suzuki is close to dead. Even if Suzuki released the perfect car, it’d be difficult to buy it because there are no dealers near an awful lot of people. As it is, a dealer near me was clearing out 2011 Kizashi SE/CVTs for less money than a base Hyundai Accent automatic and they barely got them off the lot. Of course Suzuki Motor could decide to invest resources in American Suzuki but they won’t because …

        3) North American sales constitute less than 4% of Suzuki Motor’s worldwide total sales. So, if you’re Suzuki Motor – a relatively small auto manufacturer – do you divert resources from markets (China and India) where Suzuki Motor is experiencing double digit sales growth to pursue market share in a mature market with limited growth potential (US)? The answer is no.

      • 0 avatar

        “No intervention is required or, for that matter, will happen for several reasons:”

        I’m sure Suzuki knows where/how they went wrong. Why should they fix it in the North American market where they would more or less be starting all over. That money is better spent in the other places you mention.

        Happens to the best of companies. Not everything pans out. Walmart tried in Germany. They failed. They sold off 85 stores.

    • 0 avatar

      “It sounds like your dad and his buddies had good experiences. But I wouldn’t call Suzuki’s path away from his and your tastes a “betrayal.” In any relationship of two people (or a person and a company), sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and you need to “see other people”.”

      My daughter bought a 2001 Suzuki Esteem brand new. It was at an attractive price; and I would describe it the way others describe Suzuki — not excited, but adequate. It’s styling has grown on me; it looks more like the rounded soap bar of the 1980s-1990s that I prefer to the Japanese organic round blobs we have today.

      It has been in several accidents; every time, the other car came out the worst for wear. Every time it went back together; but the last shop threw it back together, and the transmission cooler hose came off when my family was driving it to our new home post-Hurricane Katrina. We fixed the hose, filled it back up with fluid; and the transmission has been fine ever since.

      Fast forward, I bought it from her to use as my commuter beater driving back and forth 60 miles one way to work. One late night, on way home, the fan belt gave way. I was on the highway on the bad part of town, and did not want to stop there if I could help it. I noticed it was staying cool as long as I kept driving; I was fine with no alternator, power boosted brakes or steering, so I drove it 40 of the miles back home before I pulled over to have my son-in-law tow me in. No serious after effects.

      It now has 235,000 miles on it, and still averages 33-35 MPG. The A/C did not go out until last year; unheard of here in Texas; and it looks like a case of overcharging the system and damaging the clutch. It leaks a little oil around the seals, and a little PS fluid; but otherwise runs great.

      The only thing that drives me crazy about this car is trying to find parts for it; even the plastic clips that hold the side molding on appear to be unique. That will probably be what will finally do it in — not being able to replace something when it breaks.

      It’s in the shop now, having a CV-joint boot replaced and repacked (how long it has been like that I have no idea, but the joint held), the brakes worked on, and that compressor clutch looked at. Then, it will be my son’s first car; he won’t mind so long as the A/C works because it is fun to drive, like a miniture go-cart. Sometimes, I wish we bought two of them….

  • avatar

    We do not see many Suzuki cars on European roads, but that would not deter me from taking a serious look at an AWD Swift.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    On the bright of side of it all I did manage to get a 2002 Suzuki Aerio at the auction this morning for $2425. All of 106k on it as well.

    We’ll see how it holds up.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark Stevenson

      I hope it holds together for you. We drove an Aerio during our “used vehicle fact-finding mission” the weekend before last. They are so incredibly loud on the road compared to something just a couple of years newer. But, they have a certain charm that you don’t get in the SX4. Oh, and they have an odd-ball 2.3L. Not sure if it was ever in anything else on this side of the Pacific.

      • 0 avatar

        I had an 04′ Aerio. The brakes were awful, handling was awful, but it held alot of stuff and was really roomy and comfortable. I never had any problems with it, but it did have some piston slap on cold mornings and would ping like hell on hot days running regular unleaded. Ended up wrecking it on I-95 due mostly to lack of driver attention and partly due to aformentioned terrible brakes when I rear ended an ML.

  • avatar

    Wait, so they sold a Vitara that ditched the on-frame construction but yet it weighed MORE? The whole point of uniting the body and frame was to save weight!

    I was honestly never into Suzukis from the start, either you had a small slow jeep-thing that rolled in corners or you had a hatchback that was missing a cylinder.

    Nowadays X-90s and Trackers fetch decent cash used, but why? What good are they outside of rural areas?

    Suzukis new direction seems to only have one purpose: to show that the man who styled the Delorean can also style something incredibly bland.

    I see those V6 automatic Vitaras here and there, if I wanted a V6 auto I’d just buy a station wagon with a bit more room and similar mpg.

  • avatar

    I wonder how the Jimny would do here in the USA? I would be sorely tempted.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark Stevenson


    • 0 avatar

      It did quite well until CR needed some headlines. After that, sales tanked.

      It’s unlikely that the US market would accept something that basic and crude any longer.

      If I ever scrape together a few bucks, I intend to pick up a 4-door Sidekick/Tracker for use as a work truck.

      • 0 avatar

        The Jimny isn’t basic or crude by any measure. We have one; a 2006 model that has provided perfect service since it was new. Of course, I live in Asia, and the roads and traffic here are quite different than in the USA. In these conditions, vehicles like the Jimny excel. They wouldn’t be nearly as good on US freeways. The 1.3 liter engine is willing and pretty darned zippy on city streets.

        Crude? Power windows, AC, central locking and a comfy interior. Of course, that’s true of many smaller vehicles here; well appointed with plush interiors. The biggest selling car here is the Toyota Vios; think of a Prius without the hybrid drivetrain and a much nicer interior and you’ve pretty much got it.

        Suzuki’s mistake was sending Asian cars to America; that doesn’t work very well. Driving conditions and social conditions are much, much different here. We don’t need to impress others (much) with our vehicles and buy for practicality. If Americans did that, your roads would look much different.

  • avatar

    Mark, in a total unrelated tangent. The picture in your avatar doesn’t happen to be Turn 2 at Atlantic Motorsport Park does it?

    It looks suspiciously like it, and judging from your home location, assuming you still live in the area, would make sense.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark Stevenson

      You’re a tricky bugger and absolutely correct in it being AMP. The picture was taken back in 2010 (the last time I was at the track) so I have forgotten which turn it is.

      Good job!

      • 0 avatar

        Cool. The picture was just slightly too small for me to be 100% sure. I was actually at the track on Sunday and will be there for Superbike Nationals this weekend as well. (Girlfriend covering the events for The Herald.)
        I’ve done a lot of laps around that track, but on a bit of a race car hiatus at the moment. (Car broke at the same time I needed to be a grown up with my budget.)

        Nice to see some local people providing content on here. Keep it up!

  • avatar

    I think the Suzuki built Chevy Sprint and the Suzuki Samurai were both well engineered, well built cars in their own rights.

    But you have to realize that the US market has always been aa minor diversion for Suzuki. In Asia, Suzuki is known and loved for its small cars, and especially for its mini-minivans and tiny trucks. That is their real strength and their real reason for existence on this earth. If I was the CEO of Suzuki I would throw caution to the wind and just sell these Kei cars in the US. It can’t do any worse than the Kizashi.

  • avatar

    I think I see the authors point. To Me Suzuki offered two things in it’s american market peak 1)cheap durable 4×4 that could go offroad almost as well as a stock wrangler but still down mid 20mpg vs 13 mpg in a wrangler 2)fuel efficient econo boxes. They no longer offer either. I’m not saying they needed to just build the swift and sidekick/samurai forever, but they should have taken a page from auto makers like jeep. If you talk a bout suzuki cars most people think of sidekicks when you say jeep people think wrangler. I think suzuki may have been better served if that had made the vitara into more of offroader and sold a new CUV alongside of it. Right now the wrangler controls the cheap offroader market suzuki used to be a contender along with Isuzu in the entry level 4×4 market but instead they left it to jeep and poor sales resulted. It seemed like they were chasing the larger general SUV market as it appeared bigger but that market was too crowded with better players.

  • avatar
    The Dark One

    I have owned a 96 Suzuki Sidekick for over 10 years, and during the school year I rack up at least 40 miles a day. I have replaced the convertable top, clutch, and alternator once, replaced the tires and brake pads twice, and just had a new windshield installed. The only preventative maintenence i’ve done, besides oil changes, was replacing the timing chain and water pump at 79k and 150k miles. The only weak area is the spark plug wires that last around 30k miles.(I’ve had to limp home a time or two when they gave out because I neglected to replace them on time) I have around 178 thousand miles on the original engine/tranny and STILL average 28 mpg while hauling around my wife and 2 kids in it. Total strangers at the gas station have told me on more than one occasion if I ever decided to sell it i’d have no trouble finding a buyer.

  • avatar

    suzuki may just surprised everyone and get they game up i actually had a suzuki rep call me recently and said they have no plans of leaving and they are gonna work on getting dealers in place …..i really wish it could come through but what else is she gonna say to me…..

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