Suzuki leaves U.S. car business to focus on small vehicles elsewhere

In Japan and much of Asia, Suzuki remains a strong seller of motorcycles and small cars, especially microcars popular in still-growing countries such as India. Five years ago, the Japanese company had its best year ever in the United States, selling nearly 102,000 vehicles. Today, it announced it was putting its U.S. sales arm into bankruptcy and would stop selling cars here, done in by tougher competition, bad luck and a lack of imagination.

The company announced in Tokyo on Monday night that it would focus its U.S. business on motorcycles, ATVs and boat engines, while honoring warranties on vehicles already sold. Suzuki's fortunes declined dramatically following its 2007 sales peak of 101,887 cars and trucks; it had bought out dozens of dealers and stopped most marketing. Last month, Suzuki sold just 2,203 vehicles; even auto industry wags had trouble remembering that Suzuki sold the SX4, Kizashi or Suzuki Equator, a rebadged version of the Nissan Frontier.

Known mostly for motorcycles, Suzuki started selling cars in the United States in 1983 thanks to an ownership stake taken by General Motors; the two companies would collaborate on several models until GM sold its shares in 2008 before bankruptcy. Suzuki had planned to expand its U.S. sales beyond the Samurai-sized cars and SUVs it was known for with the Kizashi midsize sedan, but the company launched the car amidst a recession into the most competitive part of the market. Meanwhile, the growing strength of the Japanese yen meant Suzuki was losing money on most of its models imported from Japan to the United States.

And after nearly 30 years on these shores, the company had failed to craft much of an identity among American consumers. In China, Malaysia and elsewhere, Suzukis are seen as cheap yet stylish transportation, an image that it could never build here. Suzuki's models were never top of their class in any particular measure; the 16-year battle with Consumer Reports over its pillory of the 1988 Suzuki Samurai didn't help. Among motorcycle enthusiasts, the Suzuki Hayabusa remains legend as the world's fastest production bike, but Suzuki never found a way to translate the enthusiasm for its two-wheeled products to those with four.