When Suzuki met Fiat
In 1981, American carmaker, General Motors (GM), together with its Japanese subsidiary, Isuzu, bought a 5.3% shareholding in Suzuki. Its intention was to enter the realms of sub-compact motorcars, where GM had almost zero experience. The first fruit of the relationship arrived in the form of the Suzuki Cultus, a 1.0-litre ‘mini’ sold in North America, in 1984. It would become the Geo model, in effect an American Swift.
One year later, the SJ413 Samurai (today known as Jimny), powered by a 1.3-litre normally-aspirated four-cylinder engine, also went on sale in the USA market. It was followed, in 1988, by the Suzuki Swift. However, a production arrangement commenced in Canada, with the CAMI Automotive factory in Ontario, where Suzukis would be produced from 1989 for the North American market.
Although Suzuki’s partnership with GM-owned Isuzu ceased in 1994, the American element was bolstered in 1998, with the US firm growing its equity stake in Suzuki to 10%. Naturally, the deal was helping Suzuki to grow its status around the world and another development was agreed by GM to enable GM Argentina to distribute the cars in South America. It would be followed by a joint-venture production facility.
GM had already bought a controlling stake in Fiat, so it was inevitable that a badge-engineering exercise would commence at the GM/Suzuki factory in Hungary. As Fiat had zero history of producing 4x4 cars, a joint-brand development commenced in 2003. The SX4 model was rebadged cleverly as Sedici (Italian for 16, the result of multiplying 4x4!). Ironically, while Suzuki had earned its reputation with 4x4 cars, its Italian alternative was tasked with selling a greater number of 4WD models and the 2WD versions predominated in the UK unusually from its 2006 introduction.
At the same time, GM was in dire financial straits and, in a state of desperation sold its 92.36m Suzuki shares, to cut its stake back to 3%. By 2008, GM divested itself of the remaining balance, returning Suzuki to an independent status once again, along with a substantial ‘divorce’ settlement. By late-2012, Suzuki car production ceased at the Canadian CAMI plant, the company concentrating on motorbikes, quads and marine equipment instead. The strength of the Japanese Yen (currency) was blamed for the situation.
General Motors, a former owner of both Vauxhall and Opel, needed to consolidate its overstretched operations, in order to avoid bankruptcy in its domestic market. However, a trail of wrecked relationships that had commenced with Isuzu and had involved Subaru, Fiat and Saab, also left those firms in parlous states. Subaru survives by the skin of its teeth; Fiat is now owned by the US Chrysler Corporation; Saab has disappeared altogether and Isuzu is a shadow of its former self. Suzuki was fortunate to escape in fine fettle.
Luscombe’s summary: While Suzuki has operated many international partnerships, its glancing blow with Fiat was limited to just the one model, which was probably the best Fiat of an entire generation.
Next week: Baleno makes the perfect Learner’s car.
The low-ratio value of Suzuki
It can be said with some certainty that Suzuki knows its onions, when it comes to producing 4x4s, highlights Iain Robertson, and never more so than with its retention of a second manual gearlever in the latest Jimny model.
Most Suzuki cars occupy unique places in the new car scene. While that might sound like a dangerous statement to commit to a document, when you think about it, Suzuki does not possess any natural competitors. Of course, some car magazines will seek to create comparisons but, when you delve a little deeper, you realise that Suzuki stands out, through being better equipped, packed with driver safety equipment and priced at an affordable level.
Although a lot of car manufacturers have entered the sector presently known as SUV, which continues to expand like Topsy, very few of them have retained a core expectation of four-wheel-drive, allied to a transfer gearbox containing another set of gear ratios that enables phenomenal low-speed progress on broken and tricky ground. Land Rover used to be involved in that purposeful class of vehicle, with its Defender models, while Jeep continues its investment, as the only other carmaker that has not resorted to electronic technology, as a means to engage greater ‘go-anywhere’ competence.
It is unlikely that the forthcoming replacement for the Defender will feature a manually-selectable transfer gearbox, which ensures that Suzuki not only produces the most capable off-roader in its class but also the most cost-effective true 4x4 in the world. While it is a narrow sphere of responsibility and automatic systems are proven to be surprisingly capable (Suzuki uses them on its Vitara and Ignis models, after all), the ability to switch between 2WD and 4WD without having to stop has practical advantages.
However, to be able to select 4WD Low and also to Lock the drive into a 50:50 total traction system on demand, using the second gearlever, provides major benefits, albeit after stopping momentarily to do so, to avoid transmission damage, especially for those professionals needing it. Site workers, farmers, outlying services providers and those people seeking the ultimate off-road experience are able to tap into Suzuki’s well-engineered version of total off-road control. It gives credence to Suzuki calling its system AllGrip-Pro.
Luscombe’s summary: Remember that we also supply the Swift model in AllGrip form, which reinforces Suzuki’s reputation in the broader 4x4 scene.
Next week: Iain looks at his current collection of Suzuki model cars.
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