Okay, we're going to travel off the beaten track here for a day: The U.S. version of "Top Gear"'”the BBC's acclaimed TV series about all things automotive'”is revving up for its November debut on the HISTORY channel, and an ongoing stream of details about the new show have been making their way into the press. This includes the fact that the Suzuki SX4 SportBack will be in the spotlight for a feature called "Big Star in a Small Car," with folks like Kid Rock, Tim Allen, Michelle Rodriguez and Tony Hawk playing the "Big Star" part. Could this likewise play a big part in helping Suzuki find relevance in the U.S. market? Let's find out.
Suzuki Sells Cars Here?
That's a question people could be forgiven for asking. In September, Suzuki sold all of 1,641 vehicles; Ford dealers moved 1,581 F-150's every day last month, and that's without factoring in the "selling days" business. Worse, that represented a 12 percent drop in sales for Suzuki as compared to September 2009. Even worse yet, last month's number were actually an improvement on Suzuki's year-to-date selling rate, which is off 49 percent from the first three quarters of the previous year. Going back again to the Blue Oval for further context, some 22,284 customers have taken home a Mercury Grand Marquis through September, while Suzuki's full-line sales total for the same period was just 16,972. The absolute worst thing about this? Suzuki's sales free-fall is occurring at the same time its vehicles'”especially the Suzuki Kizashi'”have been getting some surprisingly good press.
Even if you don't take the rave reviews for the Suzuki Kizashi at face value, or don't see the point of running one at the Bonneville Salt Flats, you can't deny that this stuff is keeping the automaker in the news. Yet it hasn't done much for keeping the production lines moving. Last month saw only 477 new Kizashis hit the road. And if all the acclaim for the Kizashi isn't moving the metal, you have to wonder if the "Top Gear" partnership will be any different.
Would You Spend $17,999
on a Suzuki SportBack?
Yep, the SX4 SportBack starts at $17,999, notably higher than the usual suspects in the subcompact hatchback segment. Consider: The Honda Fit Sport has an MSRP of $16,410, and the Nissan Versa 1.8 SL (the highest trim level) opens at $16,470; the base prices for top-of-the-line models of the all-new Mazda Mazda2 and 2011 Ford Fiesta hatches are $15,635 and $17,120, respectively.
It's true that the Suzuki offers notably more power under the hood than these cars, with 150 hp and 140 lb.-ft. of torque'”the most powerful of its rivals, the Versa, offers 122 hp and 127 lb.-ft. of twist. On the other hand, the Suzuki is a fair amount heavier than the Fit, Fiesta and MAZDA2, which washes out some of that apparent performance advantage. And, of course, the SportBack turns up an EPA that is nothing less than terrible for this segment: 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway. Do I have to remind people that the V-6 Ford Mustang can go 19/31? Or that the Fiesta can achieve 29/40? At the risk of sounding like a shill for the Blue Oval, I'll also toss out the fact that the Ford Transit Connect can get 22 mpg city.
The Land of the Rising Yen
Consumers shouldn't look for the price of the Suzuki to come down any time soon, either. I'm not going to take a deep dive into the world of international finance here, but the short story is that the currency fluctuations have the yen up and the dollar down to the extent that it's starting to seriously affect the Japanese auto industry. Toyota, for example, kicked off a mini-controversy recently over moving more of its production out of Japan to take advantage of lower labor costs elsewhere. This kind of thing will impact Nissan, Honda and Mazda as much as Suzuki, but it won't affect the already existing price disparity between their vehicles.
All of which means the already existing disparity in sales among these vehicle isn't likely to change much either'”regardless of the ratings for "Top Gear."