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Suzuki’s Small Cars Were Wrong Fit in US

For all of Suzuki's tough talk about its "brush-busting" Samurai off-roader, the Japanese automaker never made it big in the United States. Its cars were too small, its safety record iffy and its branding a bit too comical (Suzuki Sidekick, anyone?).

Sean Gallup | Getty Images

So it came as little surprise to most analysts when Suzuki announced late Monday that it would stop selling automobiles in the United States and put its American unit into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

"The United States was ultimately a tough market to crack," said Kentaro Arita, auto analyst and industry research division manager at Mizuho Corporate Bank. "Its exit was a matter of time."

Still, despite Suzuki's retreat in North America, the company has made spectacular inroads into emerging markets over the last decade. The low-cost, compact cars sold by Suzuki's India unit have the top share in that fast-growing market, and the automaker also has a growing presence in Southeast Asia.

Back home in Japan, Suzuki is a leader in a category of small cars called kei vehicles that enjoy preferential tax treatment by meeting limits on length, width, engine size and horsepower. The kei category, created in Japan's lean postwar years to help ordinary Japanese buy cars, has stayed popular as a cheap option fit for navigating the country's claustrophobic roads.

One of the company's kei cars, the long-selling Wagon R, is less than 14 feet long, about 5 feet wide and 6 feet high, and its engine size is limited to two-thirds of a liter, or motorcycle-caliber. Last month, almost as many units were sold in Japan as Toyota's Prius hybrid.

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Suzuki's decision to pull out of the United States, whose market is dominated by larger models, was a sensible step to focus on its strengths, said Koji Endo, an auto industry analyst and managing director at Advanced Research, an equity research firm in Tokyo. The strong yen also made it difficult to profit by making cars in Japan and shipping them to the United States, he said.

"Basically, Suzuki does not need the United States, and the United States didn't need Suzuki," Mr. Endo said.

The American Suzuki Motor Corporation, the sole distributor of Suzuki vehicles in the United States, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday with $346 million in debt, the company said. In a statement, Suzuki said that various challenges led to its withdrawal from the American market, including low sales volume, the limited number of models in its lineup and unfavorable foreign exchange rates.

Suzuki also blamed "the high costs associated with growing and maintaining an automotive distribution system in the continental United States," as well as "the disproportionately high" costs associated with meeting increasingly stringent state and federal regulatory requirements.

The company said it would sell its remaining inventory through its dealer network, honor existing warranties and continue to supply replacement parts for its vehicles. The company also intends to continue selling motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and marine products in the United States.

Suzuki shares gained 0.65 percent to 1,847 yen (about $23.02) in Tokyo after the announcement, against a 0.36 percent decline in the benchmark Nikkei index .

While an exit makes sense for Suzuki's bottom line, it does represent another disappointing failure by Japan's second tier of automakers in their attempts to follow Toyota, Honda and Nissan into the American market.

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A foray by Daihatsu, another Japanese manufacturer of compact cars, lasted only four years before it withdrew in 1992. (Subaru, manufactured by Fuji Heavy Industries, has fared better.)

Suzuki also had big hopes for its Japan-made Samurai 4-wheel-drive vehicle, introduced in the United States in 1985. A $30 million television advertising campaign urged American car owners to try the lightweight yet "rough, tough and brush-busting" off-roader.

The Samurai found a small but loyal following as a low-cost off-roader. But it also suffered early setbacks, including a drawn-out legal battle with Consumer Reports over whether the vehicles were prone to flipping over.

Suzuki later introduced several other models to the United States, including its Swift compact, and its executives spoke of selling 200,000 vehicles a year in the American market.

A partnership with General Motors proved beneficial for both sides, giving the American company access to expertise in smaller cars, while allowing Suzuki to tap G.M.'s dealership network to sell its cars.

But just as Suzuki's sales were gaining traction in the United States, topping 100,000 in the mid-2000s for the first time, the global financial crisis hit, decimating Japanese exports.

General Motors, scrambling for cash, sold off its stake in Suzuki, and the Japanese manufacturer withdrew from a joint manufacturing venture in Canada.

Since then, Suzuki's sales in the United States have dwindled. In the first 10 months of 2012, it sold just 21,000 vehicles. A budding partnership with Volkswagen also grew acrimonious, forcing Suzuki to regroup.

Experts said that Suzuki was likely to concentrate its managerial resources on strengthening its grip on markets like India, where it has been hit by worker strife in recent months.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 6, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated a description Suzuki used to promote its Samurai off-roader. It is "brush-busting," not "bush-busting."

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