Suzuki Death Watch 4: Badge-Engineering Redux

Mark Stevenson
by Mark Stevenson

While a number of automakers have been complicit (and still are) when it comes to badge engineering, Suzuki in North America has been on the forefront of whoring out or johning platforms since its introduction in the 80s. The ‘Japanese brand that could’ has either slapped the stylized S on Daewoos and Nissans or let GM have their dirty ways with the grilles of small Suzuki cars and SUVs.

Almost every car company has, for better or worse, built vehicles with other OEMs to maximize economies of scale. Subaru and Saab tied the knot for a short-lived marriage. Mazda and Ford used to grab Korean econoboxes from Kia. But, Suzuki has been in a league of its own. Almost every vehicle Suzuki has built has been with a partner or ‘badgineered’ in some way or another.

This is by far not a definitive list, only highlighting vehicles which were available in the US and Canada (if we included all Suzuki models, I would be writing this post into next year), so please feel free to add anything I’ve missed in the comments.

Suzuki Samurai (Suzuki SJ30/SJ40/SJ410, second generation Jimny)

Aliases: Chevrolet Samurai, Holden Drover, Suzuki Caribbean, Suzuki Katana, Suzuki Potohar, Suzuki SJ410, Suzuki Samurai, Suzuki Santana, Suzuki Sierra, Maruti Gypsy

When Suzuki first entered into a product sharing agreement with GM in 1981, this is the vehicle that started the badgineering activities. While it never donned a bowtie in North America, the Suzuki Samurai was sold in Australia as the Holden Drover and in other markets as the Chevrolet Samurai. In Spain, manufacturing was run by Santana, producing the Suzuki Santana, a relationship that ended in failure and left many Santana owners without warranties. To this day, the Samurai is still manufactured in India and Pakistan and is popular in off-road circles. But, a Consumer Reports investigation into the Samurai’s instability in corners where the vehicle would easily roll over killed sales of the mini utility in North America, culminating in a lawsuit between the consumer watchdog and Suzuki which was settled in 2004.

Suzuki Forsa (first generation Suzuki Cultus)

Aliases: Suzuki SA-310, Suzuki Forsa, Chevrolet Sprint, Pontiac Firefly (Canada), Geo Metro, Holden Barina (Australia)

Years: 1985-1988

While not Suzuki and GM’s first badgineering effort, it was the first to reach North American shores after the two companies decided to tie up in 1981. Initially offered only in a 3-door hatchback body style, multiple variants – including a turbo model – were introduced over three years. It was eventually replaced by a new generation Suzuki Cultus.

Suzuki Swift (second generation Suzuki Cultus)

Aliases: Suzuki Cultus Esteem, Geo Metro, Pontiac Firefly, Maruti Suzuki 1000/Esteem, Holden Barina, Chevrolet Swift (Colombia, Ecuador), Suzuki Forsa II (Ecuador), Chevrolet Sprint (Canada), Subaru Justy (Europe), Suzuki Amenity [hatchback] (Indonesia), Suzuki Esteem [sedan] (Indonesia), Chang’an SC7130 Gazelle, Suzuki Margalla (Pakistan)

Years: 1988-1994 (in most markets)

After capitalizing on an amazing entrance to the North American market, Suzuki and GM decided to build the next Cultus – badged locally as the Swift, Metro, Sprint, and Firefly – in Ingersoll, Ontario’s CAMI alongside the Suzuki Sidekick. While base models had a thumper 3-cylinder heart producing an anaemic 54 hp from an engine with half the displacement of a large bottle of Coke, a hot GTi model was available with 100hp and disc brakes. The second generation Cultus is coveted by hypermilers for its amazing mileage and stupid-simple ‘fix it with a rubber band and paper clip’ engineering. Currently built in Pakistan and China, this generation Cultus could become the new Beetle of Asia if production continues.

Author Note: My family owned a Pontiac Firefly when I still wasn’t tall enough to see over the roof. The tiny little tires dug through east coast snow and slush like my fat dog chews through freshly stolen apple pie. Never once did it get stuck. Never once did it break down. But, your mileage may vary.

Suzuki Sidekick (first generation Suzuki Escudo)

Aliases: Asüna Sunrunner, Chevrolet Tracker, Chevrolet Vitara, Geo Tracker, GMC Tracker, Mazda Proceed Levante, Pontiac Sunrunner, Santana 300/ 350, Suzuki Vitara

Years: 1989-1999 (in most markets)

The Sidekick, as it was mainly known as in North American markets, was probably the worst offender of badgineering at General Motors. It arrived on the scene just as GM was developing its ‘captive import’ brands and the Sidekick was such a popular model all dealers wanted a piece of the action. Out of GM’s core brands, the only ones not to get a version of the Sidekick were Buick and Cadillac. In Japan, it was even built for Mazda and sold as the Proceed Levante. While not as rugged as the Samurai, the Sidekick did offer a proper transfer case on 4×4 models and is still popular with the off-road crowd. The first generation Sidekick also underpinned the X-90 cute ‘ute, though its failure was predetermined before it hit dealer lots.

Author note: We have a history of Suzuki Sidekick ownership in my family.

Suzuki Swift (third generation Suzuki Cultus)

Aliases: Geo Metro, Chevrolet Metro, Pontiac Firefly, Chang’an Antelope

Years: 1995-2001

The third generation Suzuki Swift differed greatly from the Japanese market Suzuki Swift. The platform, a modified version of the second generation Cultus bones, was used only for the North American market. It is worth noting examples of this generation would regularly return 40mpg and have commanded high prices on the used market in recent years.

Suzuki Esteem (Suzuki Cultus Crescent)

Aliases: Chevrolet Cassia, Suzuki Esteem, Suzuki Cultus, Suzuki Baleno, Maruti Baleno, Maruti Baleno Altura (station wagon)

Years: 1996-2001

The North American market Esteem was the true successor to the 2nd generation Cultus/Swift. Growing considerably in size over the outgoing model, the Esteem didn’t see the same success in the North American market as the 3rd generation Swift/Metro. Most running gear was carried over from the 2nd generation Cultus and, due to lack of popularity, was replaced by the Suzuki Aerio.

Suzuki Vitara/Grand Vitara/XL7 (second generation Suzuki Escudo)

Aliases: Chevrolet Tracker, Chevrolet Grand Vitara, Chevrolet Grand Vitara XL7

Years: 1999-2005 (in most markets)

The second generation Escudo became the basis for many Vitara and Tracker vehicles throughout the Americas. Powered by a range of 4-cylinder and V6 engines, the vehicles continued to prove popular, through not as popular with off-roaders as previous models. The new model was more refined while retaining its body on frame construction. The XL7, a lengthened Grand Vitara with an enlarged 2.7 V6, was once the cheapest 7-seater SUV in North America and was available with a manual transmission unlike its competitors. This generation was replaced in 2005 by a Theta-based Vitara, sharing components with the Chevrolet Equinox, but it still retained its FR layout.

Suzuki Reno/Forenza (first generation Daewoo Lacetti)

Aliases: Too many to mention

Years: 2004-2008 (as Suzukis in the US)

After GM, along with partners Suzuki and SIAC, purchased Daewoo in 2001, the Japanese brand entered the dark years of rebadging Daewoos as their own product for the North American market. In Canada, the Lacetti was sold as the Chevrolet Optra and Optra5. The Reno/Forenza, on top of being unfortunately named, never took hold in the market due to dated styling, cheap materials, and bad fuel economy versus other vehicles in the class (and some vehicles in larger classes).

Suzuki Verona (Daewoo Magnus)

Aliases: Chevrolet Epica, Chevrolet Evanda, Daewoo Evanda, Formosa Magnus

Years: 2004-2006 (as a Suzuki in the US)

Also a product of GM’s purchase of Daewoo, the Suzuki Verona was sold in the continental US while the Chevrolet Epica was offered on GM dealer lots in Canada. Easily the ugliest mid-size sedan on offer between 2004 and 2006, the Daewoo Magnus used an outdated 2.5L V6 producing 155hp. It was outsold by almost everything else on the market. When it was discontinued, it left a gaping hole in Suzuki’s lineup for a mid-size sedan until the introduction of the Suzuki Kizashi in 2009.

Suzuki SX4

Aliases: Fiat Sedici

Years: 2006-present

The arrival of the SX4 was a welcomed sight, replacing the oddball Suzuki Aerio as the compact car offering in North America. While never badge-engineered in the western world, the SX4 was developed in concert with Fiat who sells the SX4 was the Sedici in European countries and markets it as a “mini utility” due to its available AWD. The current model, while getting long in the tooth, is expected to receive a facelift later this year and possibly be replaced for the 2014 model year.

Suzuki Equator (Nissan Frontier)

Years: 2008-present

After the switch to unibody construction for the Grand Vitara, Suzuki had a need for a body-on-frame vehicle to fill the need for people needing the extra durability. In 2008, Suzuki introduced the Equator after a three-concept unveil at the Chicago Auto Show. In order to bring a pickup to market in the United States and avoid the “chicken tax”, Suzuki contracted with Nissan to build the truck based on the Nissan Frontier. The pickup, nothing more than a Frontier sporting a different grille and headlights, has never set the sales charts on fire. In June 2012, the Equator only outsold two other pickups in the US market – the Cadillac Escalade EXT and discontinued Dodge Dakota – and sales were so bad in Canada the model was discontinued in 2010.

And here comes the trivia…

How many vehicles did Suzuki sell in North America that were not badge engineered? Take your chance in the comments!

Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson

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4 of 31 comments
  • Wmba Wmba on Aug 07, 2012

    Seems like this Suzuki Death Watch series is a bit of a personal vendetta, Mark. There is no point to this article that I can ascertain. That said, I was insulted by a Dartmouth Suzuki salesman myself for having the temerity to ask just what kind of AWD the Aerio had. That loud-mouthed boor pretty much summed up my feelings about the brand. Useless. Time to move on and think about more pleasant things. Your blood pressure will thank you.

    • See 1 previous
    • Rental Man Rental Man on Aug 09, 2012

      @Mark Stevenson "I kind of pity the owner as he is now the dealer for the two least popular brands in Canada". Not only in Canada... Europe, Mexico, Australia... Mitsubishi is out of product. At least the Outlander Sports move some metal.

  • TruthyToothy TruthyToothy on Aug 10, 2012

    Suzuki sells rebadged cars here by agreement with other car makers which then get the lucrative opportunity to sell rebadged Suzuki made cars in Japan. See e.g. So as the original NY Times review of the Equator pointed out, you get a better warranty and so buy the Suzuki. I don't know why the rebadging is such a crime. You get a better deal, just live with it.

  • Mike Some Evs are hitting their 3 year lease residual values in 6 months.
  • Tassos Jong-iL I am just here for the beer! (did I say it right?)
  • El scotto Tim, to be tactful I think a great many of us would like a transcript of TTAC's podcast. 90 minutes is just too long for most of us to listen. -evil El Scotto kicking in- The blog at best provides amusement, 90 minutes is just too much. Way too much.
  • TooManyCars VoGhost; I was referring more to the Canadian context, but the same graft is occurring in the US of A and Europe. Political affiliation appears to be irrelevant.
  • The Oracle Going to see a lot of corporations migrating out of Delaware as the state of incorporation. Musk sets trends, he doesn’t follow them.