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Suzuki's struggles might not reach Canada

"SUZUKI Canada, including its automotive division, remains fully open for business in Canada, and will be honouring all customer commitments." Well thank goodness for that. With this opening statement, Mr.

"SUZUKI Canada, including its automotive division, remains fully open for business in Canada, and will be honouring all customer commitments." Well thank goodness for that.

With this opening statement, Mr. Bill Porter, senior vice president of automobile sales and marketing for Suzuki Canada, laid the concerns of many Canadian Suzuki owners to rest. South of the border, Suzuki U.S.A. has just filed for bankruptcy after nearly 50 years in operation.

Admittedly, the hotly contested U.S. presidential could overshadow the shuttering of any company - and yet, the U.S. motoring press has collectively shed few tears for the small and quirky Japanese company. With a little more than 20,000 vehicles sold year-to-date (Honda sells as many Civics in a single month), the "S" badge seems little more than a footnote.

Something must have been lost in translation: Suzuki is Japan's fourth-largest automaker after the giants of Toyota, Nissan and Honda. When it comes to Japanese-market small cars and trucks, Suzuki moves up to second place.

Why then has the company languished behind Mazda, Subaru and even Mitsubishi in the American market? And how will it continue to survive in Canada given how strongly linked both our markets are?

Well, first off, the old adage seems to ring true: everything's bigger in America. Our Yankee cousins like their politics loud, their burgers super-sized, and their sedans large: where we buy Corollas, they buy Camrys.

As a company that started off manufacturing innovative clip-on engines for bicycles during the difficult post-war years in Japan, Suzuki is master of the miniature. They lead the pack in the kei car segment (sub-1.0-litre-engined Japanese-domestic-market microcars), and have always done their best work here with smaller vehicles.

Take, for instance, the Jimny. This cricket-sized jeep-like machine burst on the scene with something like 40 horsepower and the curb-weight of a sneeze. While it, and later the Samurai, were dinky little toys compared to the jacked-up pickups and Jeeps more commonly used off-road, their tiny dimensions made for incredible maneuverability. While a bit alarming on the highway, a Samurai can squeeze down a narrow old track like a road-legal ATV.

While the brand got its footing with motorcycles and marine outboards in the early 1970s (early '60s for the U.S.), their first real Canadian foray into commuter car transportation was the Forsa, in 1984. Not for the first time, the penny-pinching ways of Canadians led to this boxy little gas-miser hitting our market several years before it was widely available down south.

While the Forsa didn't look like it had much of a personality, it was available with both a ho-hum carbureted 1.0-litre motor and a turbo-charged powerplant as well. Given that the Forsa weighed practically nothing, cramming even a mildly peppy powerplant under the hood gave it a feel like a Mini Cooper.

Much like the Mini, the Forsa (which was called the Cultus in most markets) was built under various different nameplates - just one instance of Suzuki advising bigger manufacturers on the proper way to build a small car. Most well known, perhaps, is the Chevy Sprint.

Soon updated with curvier looks, both the Sprint and the Swift remain some of the most optimistically named vehicles of all time. Good grief were they slow, and yet endlessly entertaining. Later joined by the Geo Metro and the Pontiac Firefly, I have been a passenger in one of these things at speed, and it's like sitting in a garden shed that's sliding down a ski jump.

Naturally, a complete disregard for personal safety or sound insulation resulted in a three-cylinder eco-pod that'd make a Prius look like a Humvee. When gas first spiked above the buck-a-litre mark, Metros, Swifts and Sprints all became worth more than their weight in gold for the commuting crowd. Even still, the slightly nerdy hypermilers have big love for these little cars.

It's worth coming back around again to the subject of turbo charging. With a nearly silly amount of room under the hood (the engine on a Swift is about as big as two loaves of bread), there's plenty of room for all the complicated plumbing of turbo charging. Many kei cars turn to turbos as JDM cars are taxed on engine-displacement, so Suzuki already had considerable expertise in this field.

By modern standards, the Swift Turbo and the Firefly Turbo are not actually that fast. However, they are both far quicker than is really safe and/or reasonable - so too the rare 100 h.p. Swift GTi/GT. These are the cars that captured the imagination of the impecunious driving enthusiast: small machines with big hearts.

The modern Suzuki lineup has many such vehicles. The SX4 crossover is the least-expensive all-wheel-drive vehicle you can buy in Canada, and is really quite good fun to drive. The Kizashi mid-sized sedan is smaller than its Accord/Camry competitors, and lacks a V-6 option, but is lighter, nimbler and slightly more premium-feeling because of it. The Grand Vitara is probably the last proper small SUV you can get, in a sea of so-called "soft-roaders."

Of course, there's room for improvement if Suzuki is going to be a mainstay in Canada. The best-loved Swift nameplate is long overdue for a vehicle that is worthy to carry it - specifically, the Japanese/European model is infinitely more desirable than the old re-badged Daewoo product.

What's more, with just 5,000 vehicles sold last year, it's clear that not enough Canadians are being drawn into the showrooms. With nearly every major manufacturer now fielding a decent sub-compact, Suzuki's niche is more crowded than ever.

Lastly, it's a question of focus. Suzuki's market presence in India is massive, with growing influence throughout Southeast Asia. The potential for profit in these emerging markets is enormous, far outweighing that of selling a few thousand vehicles a year to parsimonious (yet polite) folks like us.

And yet, there's success to be found here as well. Canadians love our small cars, and that's what Suzuki does best. While their motorcycle, marine and ATV division will surely flourish, the automotive wing will always do well here as long as the "S" badge up front is more than just skin deep.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail. com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.