Companies & Industries

The Ode: North American Suzuki cars (1980–2013)

Suzuki never really committed to us.

Tibor Kolley/CP

Tibor Kolley/CP

Founded in the small coastal village of Hamamatsu, Japan, in 1909, for decades Suzuki made silk-weaving looms before branching out into cars and motorcycles in the 1950s. Like fellow Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Honda, Suzuki formed a wholly owned Canadian subsidiary in the 1970s as part of a broader strategy to pursue the North American market. Canadians were introduced to the LJ, a Japanese-built Jeep-like four-wheel-drive vehicle, in the fall of 1980.

Priced as low as $6,800, the LJ was among the cheapest four-wheel drives available—the first in a decades-long stream of small, inexpensive, economical cars and sport utility vehicles from Suzuki. Later came the diminutive Forsa passenger car and the controversial Samurai, tarred by allegations from Consumer Reports that it demonstrated an unacceptable tendency to tip over. Suzuki Canada opened its headquarters in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, while a separate American division established a beachhead in that country. Engines in many of these early vehicles were best rated in hamsterpower rather than horses; early Samurais struggled to maintain posted speed limits.

Suzuki’s circumstances demanded a unique approach. Lacking the resources of larger companies, it preferred to find partners—and in doing so became perhaps the world’s most collaborative auto manufacturer. In the mid-1980s, it commenced talks with General Motors about a joint venture that would see Suzukis built in Canada. The result was Canadian Automobile Manufacturing Inc. (CAMI), a jointly run plant in Ingersoll, Ont., opened in 1988 and initially capable of churning out 200,000 vehicles a year. Most were sold as GM models, like the Pontiac Firefly or Geo line of econo-boxes, although distinctions between those and corresponding Suzuki models were often subtle at best.

Perennially a niche player, Suzuki Canada struggled to sell more than 10,000 cars annually. Such anemic volumes meant that in good years it could call itself the country’s fastest-growing brand. Yet its dealership network rarely exceeded 100, and dealers were saddled with a thin, uninspiring product line.

Suzuki never committed itself wholeheartedly to the North American marketplace. Its executives admitted as much—during a push in 2007 one acknowledged, “I think this is the first firm commitment to the North American market they’ve had ever.” It was a classic case of better never than too late. That year, the company sold a record 102,000 units in the U.S., but a recession lay just around the corner.

Desperate to control costs, the company slashed advertising and skipped auto shows. Its dealer network contracted. Sales plummeted by three-quarters in just a few short years. Meanwhile the yen’s strength in foreign-exchange markets rendered Japanese-built Suzukis increasingly uncompetitive overseas. American Suzuki filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 5, 2012. Suzuki Canada scrambled to reassure dealers, employees and customers it would drive safely past the wreckage. That was wishful thinking. In March, Suzuki announced that in Canada, too, its cars were finished. (It had already pulled out of its CAMI partnership years earlier.)

Its ignominious demise in North America notwithstanding, Suzuki remains among the world’s largest automakers, and a leading marque in important markets, including Japan and India. The SX4 hatchback, Kizashi sedan and Grand Vitara SUV are survived by various motorcycles, outboard marine engines and all-terrain vehicles Suzuki still plans to sell on this continent.