Warning: We're going to venture a bit outside of the mainstream today, courtesy of the new Suzuki Kizashi. The mid-sized sedan received a king-sized dose of favorable press coverage around the time it went on sale last December, and it has continued to get the occasional positive shout-out from the media in past months. The problem is, not too many customers appear to be listening. That, along with some recent comments by Renault/Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, got me thinking: If a high-quality car like the Kizashi can't help a small company like Suzuki succeed in the U.S., what can?
See, I get the feeling that Ghosn would say the Suzuki situation is hopeless. According to Automotive News, reporting on his recent speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Ghosn believes the key to automotive success in today's industry is size. If you don't compete in every segment, in every country, with every technology, you're doomed to failure. And only the really big industry players can afford that.
In the U.S. market, Suzuki, with no hybrids, no diesels, no large cars, etc., etc., then would seem to be up ye olde creek sans paddle. And that's despite the Kizashi, which, according to the industry research firm AutoPacific, is currently the most satisfying vehicle on the market today. As I've often said, there are plenty of problems with these kinds of studies, but in this particular report, in theory based solely on customer input, the biggest difficulty was probably finding enough Kizashi owners to respond in the first place.
Suzuki sold all of 406 Kizashis last month and just 1,219 through the end of April. To put that into context, it took Suzuki four months to sell the same number of mid-size sedans that Hyundai sells in two days. Now, the Hyundai Sonata definitely has some advantages over the Kizashi, especially in terms of highway fuel efficiency, but likewise, the Suzuki offers an all-wheel-drive model that's missing from the Hyundai lineup. All told, it's a more-than-credible mid-size competitor that would likely be selling at about 30 times its current rate if it were wearing a Chevrolet badge.
The Suzuki SX4 crossover also has been collecting its share of kudos from both the press and customers, again playing the AWD card to relatively good effect. It's one of the least-expensive AWD vehicles on the road today, starting at $16,899, offers impressive versatility, and turns up surprisingly good gas mileage. With a manual transmission, the SX4 can get 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway, and that's even with four-wheel drive.
But the SX4's sales in the first third of 2010 fell 50 percent, although this improved to just a 5 percent sales slip for April itself, representing 981 sales. If the SX4 were part of the Subaru lineup, slotting in as the automaker's subcompact model just beneath the Subaru Impreza, I'm thinking we'd see at least double that number of sales.
With all apologies to Mr. Ghosn, if these strong products can't get customers' attention, why would he think a Suzuki hybrid or electric vehicle, or full-size sedan or medium crossover, would do any better?
Remember, as well, that selling a limited number of models, with a "limited" amount of powertrain technology, hasn't hurt Subaru too much. Its entire U.S. lineup is the Impreza, the mid-size Subaru Legacy, and a range of SUV/crossovers that grows from the Subaru Outback to the Subaru Forester to the Tribeca.
Yet, while offering solely those five models, all of which run on just plain old gasoline, the company had a record-breaking sales year in 2009 and is already well ahead of that pace in 2010. And this despite the fact that the Tribeca is finding customers at a rate that would be troubling even for Suzuki. The biggest Subaru has sold a tiny 910 units so far in 2010, a number that trails the Kizashi, SX4 and the Suzuki Grand Vitara.
Here's the kicker, though: On a global scale, Suzuki is up among the top 10 automakers in the world and sold 2.4 million vehicles overall last year. Subaru sold under 500,000.
Which means success in the auto industry just might be a little trickier to figure out than Ghosn thinks.