2009 Tokyo Show: Suzukis Plan for the US

It’s virtually impossible to overstate the importance of the Suzuki Kizashi in terms of the brand’s strategy in the U.S. market. During a recent discussion with journalists at the Suzuki headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan, Takashi Nakayama, general manager of automotive engineering, said everything from bringing the Suzuki Swift to America to determining future powertrains for the U.S, market relies on the success of the new Kizashi sedan.

Kizashi is a huge step forward for the small Japanese automaker in our market. Suzuki has enjoyed a reputation for exciting, well-built motorcycles, outboard engines, and ATVs in the United States for a long time, but the offerings with four wheels have generally been met with a yawn. Suzuki has very little experience building the sort of large, powerful cars Americans enjoy. In fact, Suzuki’s quintessential car is the Wagon R, a small van-like vehicle powered by a 660cc engine. The Wagon R is the best-selling car in all of Japan, so it’s easy to see why Suzuki has focused on small cars with four cylinder engines for the U.S. and relied on a (now dissolved) partnership with General Motors for larger SUVs and a collaboration with Nissan for the Equator pickup.

Though Kizashi is currently only offered with a four cylinder engine, Suzuki recently allowed some journalists to sample a prototype with a 280 hp V-6 engine at an event in the U.S. A hybrid version of the car is also under consideration, though Nakayama isn’t sure Suzuki’s sales volume warrants the expensive powertrain for the American market. If demand for Kizashi is strong, there is a good chance more powertrains will be offered, but small sales volumes would almost certainly relegate Kizashi to the four-cylinder sandbox.

Every journalist in the room hoped for confirmation of the Suzuki Swift heading to U.S. showrooms, but Suzuki’s plan is to wait for the market’s reaction to Kizashi before making any major product decisions. If the sedan’s more driver-oriented personality is accepted by Americans, the Swift stands a good chance of being imported. Nakayama admitted the new Swift, which is expected to debut in Japan some time in 2011, has been designed with an eye for U.S. safety requirements, so federalizing the compact hatchback would not be incredibly difficult if a business case can be found.

The idea of kei cars, those small Japanese cars powered by 660cc engines, heading to the U.S. in hopes of bolstering CAFE numbers was almost instantly dismissed because the small engines are unable to accelerate the cars quickly enough to perform the required EPA test cycle. It’s a bit ironic the small, light, funky, fuel-efficient vehicles are literally too slow to sell in the U.S. since one of the easiest ways to save fuel is by simply slowing down, particularly during acceleration. I spent a few minutes riding around Hamamatsu in a Suzuki kei car and the experience was quite positive as a passenger. I’d much rather have a small, slow vehicle with a gas engine than the sort of neighborhood electric vehicle that thrives in certain retirement communities.