Since arriving in the U.S. 13 years ago, AmericanMotor Corp. has acted like the quiet kid in the back of the classroom: not making waves, but not doing much else either.
Nowwants to get noticed and go up a few rows, if not to the head of the class. It wants to boost annual U.S. sales from about 35,000 units currently to 65,000 next year and to 100,000 by 2002.
Suzuki plans to do that by advertising more, adding dealerships and introducing new products starting with the 1999 Grand Vitara, an all-new sport/utility vehicle (SUV) that's pumped up with a 2.5L V-6 engine.
"It's a remarkable turning point for us," says Gary Anderson, vice president of sales and marketing for American Suzuki's automotive division.
Suzuki debuted the Grand Vitara in grand fashion with a laser light show, loud music and special effects at the New York Auto Show. That's how a lot of big manufacturers introduce their new products. It hasn't been Suzuki's style. Until now.
"We've been conservative but . . . now as the industry changes, so must we," says Mr. Anderson.
The Grand Vitara shared some of its New York spotlight with Suzuki's introduction of the Vitara, a subcompact SUV successor to the Sidekick that ends its run this year. Also going is the Suzuki X-90, a whimsically shaped 2-seater SUV built on the Sidekick platform. People either loved or hated the X-90. Not enough loved it.
Suzuki has positioned itself in a subcompact niche. Now it wants to follow the small-vehicle market to bigger and better things. That's where the 4,000-lb. (1,800-kg) Grand Vitara comes in with its 155-hp engine.
"What Suzuki has done with the Grand Vitara is take the best attributes of the small sport/utility market and add features the others don't offer - namely more power," says Mr. Anderson.
Corp. reportedly wanted Suzuki's V-6 for one of its all-new Chevrolet Tracker models. A GM source says Suzuki refuses to share the engine just yet, lest such a joint venture soften the impact of the Grand Vitara launch.
The 4-cyl. Tracker and Vitara are virtual twins built at the CAMI assembly plant, a Suzuki-GM joint venture in Ingersoll, Ont. The Grand Vitara is made in Japan.
Chevrolet may come out with a V-6 Tracker later, says division General Manager John Middlebrook. Meantime, "if you feel you need a V-6 SUV, please buy a Chevy Blazer," he says.
Suzuki executives say GM asked Suzuki to supply the V-6 for a beefier Tracker. A GM representative confirms that his company wanted that engine. However another GM executive says Suzuki's V-6 is too high-tech and thus too costly.
But it may find its way under a Tracker hood yet "if Suzuki could give it to us at a great price," says Bradley J. Rogers, director of international and joint-venture programs for GM's small-car group. "We're exploring our options."
Mr. Anderson says Suzuki is currently more interested in giving its dealers a bold product with a strong engine and image.
"Dealers have been frustrated that we haven't been more aggressive over the last eight or nine years," says Mr. Anderson. "Now they're excited."
American Suzuki plans to expand its dealerships from 300 now to 400 as part of the get-noticed campaign. "A stronger, more aggressive dealer body is crucial," says Mr. Anderson.
Overall, parent Suzuki Motor Corp., Japan's No. 5 automaker, wants to boost worldwide yearly sales from 1.9 million units at present to 2.5 million in 2002.