Suzuki celebrates the ton, although its car division is only just pensionable
There are several major birthdays that the motor industry is celebrating (or may have wanted to) in 2020, of which just one is quite close to the heart of Iain Robertson, which gives him an opportunity to recall some of his personal Suzuki exploits.
Suzuki is a surprisingly resilient company. When it was first established by Michio Suzuki around 100 years ago, as with several subsequent vehicle producers, it was in a completely different industry. In fact, Suzuki textile looms became exceptionally advanced over the next thirty years, until a global decline in the cotton industry reinforced embryonic, pre-WW2 intentions for Suzuki to produce a new class of motorcar.
While Hitler was making his mark in Europe, the Japanese war effort stymied production plans for several major engineering firms and, while Suzuki was lining up its first new car in 1937, it was also shelved and would not reappear until Suzuki Motor Co Limited was formed in 1954. In a country devastated by the atom bomb but desperate to rise from the ashes, the Suzulight was a genuine pioneer. It was the first front-engine, front-wheel drive car in Japan. As with several carmakers, a two-stroke, twin-cylinder engine provided a modest 15hp from its 360cc displacement and tipped the weight scales at just over 500kgs.
Intriguingly, it met the early ‘Keijidosha’ (’kei-class’) light car legislation that remains in much modified form in Japan today. Despite being quite rudimentary, the Suzulight featured independent coil spring suspension and rack-and-pinion steering, considerably ahead of its several rivals. Early production figures (1955) were exceedingly low, with only a handful of cars rolling out of the factory every month, yet by early-1956, the numbers were ramped up to around 30 examples a month. It needs to be remembered how poor Japanese people were. A second new model was introduced in 1959, retaining the compact car outline and twin-cylinder motor, albeit boosted to 21hp.
While Suzuki motorbikes developed the brand name, its cars were not exported in greater numbers until the late-1970s, the Cervo (also known as ‘Whizzkid’) rear-engined coupe and LJ80 (compact ‘Jeep’-like car) introducing 800cc tiddlers to Europe. The original Swift model was introduced in teensy numbers by the mid-1980s, refined into the GA, then GS model by the ed of the decade, by which time the model referred to as ‘Mark Two’ Swift (it is actually the Mark Three) revealed its aerodynamic prowess with an ovoid profile. The 1.3-litre GTi version was the first Suzuki in which I invested. Developing a cool 101bhp and the ability to rev to almost 8,000rpm, the little four-cylinder ‘screamer’ owed much of its development to the bike scene, with hollow, sodium-cooled, twin overhead camshafts and impeccable balance.
My white Swift was barely a year old, before I despatched it to Janspeed Engineering in Salisbury, which reworked the car considerably. With performance brakes supplied by AP Racing, beefed-up suspension, a freer breathing exhaust system and a power increase to 158bhp, the amazingly light three-door could accelerate from 0-60mph in 5.9s, exceed 135mph and rev to 9,000rpm reliably. It was raucous and hilarious. The same car also performed faultlessly during an early foray on the infamous Nürburgring Racing Circuit in Germany. Later that year, it would tackle an around-Europe drive that commenced in Belgium, travelled to the south of France, then Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and back to the UK.
In 1993, I bought a second Swift GTi in black. It was a more refined car altogether, despite being dimensionally and visually little different to the earlier white car. As a small car fan, even though I missed the vibrant and accessible potency of the Swift 1.3GTi, I traded it in for a Fiat Cinquecento Sporting, one of the funkiest tiddlers of the early-1990s. It, too, would succumb to Janspeed’s tuning magic.
Although the ‘new’ Swift, which arrived during GM’s partnership deal with Suzuki, had some appeal to me, a lot of the other models (Liana, Baleno, Wagon R, and even Splash) were all a bit ‘mumsy’ and ‘blue-rinse’. Vitara, through several generations, had become the darling of the hairdressing set, although off-roading enthusiasts adored both it and Jimny for their giant-killing potential in the trickiest of environments. The company did try a late ‘noughties’ attempt to enter the mid-size, luxury car market, with the immensely impressive Kizashi model, which sold in small numbers.
Following almost 20 years of Skoda ownership, I became completely entranced by the new Baleno of 2015, acquiring my example the following year. It was extraordinarily light and made exceptional use of its 109bhp, 1.0-litre turbo-petrol, three-cylinder engine. It was a prime case of Suzuki exercising its compact car talents in the most effective ways; reducing kerbweight, returning 55mpg, zipping from 0-60mph in around 9.0s and topping out at over 125mph. It was amazing and, despite its apparent flimsiness, the car never missed a beat, always exceeded expectations and provided me with almost three years’ worth of comfortable, spacious and practical transport. I loved it.
However, despite an oft-stated detestation of the SUV/crossover sector, following my first drive of the new Vitara, when powered by the 1.4-litre, 138bhp Boosterjet engine, I was hooked. Unlike any of its rivals in the compact sector, the Vitara was a complete dynamic package that belied its higher ride height, with a ride and handling envelope that belonged to the hot hatch sector. My tentative first laps of a cool and damp Croft Racing Circuit proved its potential to me. By the time the 1.0-litre model appeared in late-2018 (same running gear as the Baleno), I was already an ardent fan. I got my example last summer and I adore it totally.
Suzuki is a brand that has been jostled around considerably over the years, from an ill-fated relationship with Volkswagen, preceded by several unsettling years partnered by General Motors. It produces cars in India; a huge success story. Yet, having introduced us to an all-new and very exciting Jimny only a couple of years ago, to discover that it has now been dropped, along with the phenomenal 1.0-litre turbo-petrol engine and Celerio, Baleno and even the 1.0-litre Swift, the burgeoning appeal of a Toyota partnership is not great.
Conclusion: Suzuki will survive. It does that quite well. It is the 11th largest carmaker in the world and is also heavily invested in two wheels and outboard engineering. Yet, it seems to bounce from one pitfall to another. I hope that Toyota hybridisation does not harm the brand too much.