One of the world’s largest carmakers is making a comeback, does Malaysia have room for it?
Daniel · Sep 2, 2020 08:51 AM
This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the world’s largest car makers. It is also one of only three companies in the world that still produces both cars and motorcycles. I am talking about Suzuki. And word on the grapevine is that Suzuki is about to make a return to Malaysia after a four-year absence.
Though tenth in the global ranking of size by volume, the fact that Suzuki got to where it is without sub-brands and representation in the lucrative North American market is remarkable.
Even more remarkable is that Suzuki is pulling in the numbers by selling small cars and SUVs, more than half of which are sold in India.
You would never think as Suzuki as old, big, noteworthy, or particularly exciting for that matter. That last bit is true.
Take a quick glance through its back catalogue and it is bereft of genre-defining performance or luxury models. Suzuki has no icon in the same vein as the Honda’s NSX, Nissan’s Skyline GT-R, or Toyota’s whole Lexus division.
It is the same story in the motorsports arena. No Formula One victories or World Rally Championship dominance here. You’d only find Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima’s mad Pikes Peak time attack Suzukis and Top Gear’s “Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car” Liana as honourable track mentions.
That isn’t to say that Suzuki is as rigid as a corpse with the sex-appeal of an accountancy firm. In fact, what Suzuki lacks for in ambition it does compensate with some genuinely loveable cars.
In an era where hot hatches aren’t really hot hatches but family-friendly pocket rockets, Suzuki has preserved the original Golf GTI’s modest lightweight fun in a tin can formula in the Swift name.
The second-generation Swift GTi, otherwise known as the Cultus, and the last two generations of the Swift Sport were cracking cult favourites in Malaysia. And if the praises heard around the world about the latest third-generation Swift Sport is to be believed, that spirit is well and truly alive.
Not just limited to small hatchbacks, Suzuki also gave Malaysians their first taste of a “lifestyle” SUV vehicle in the form of the first-generation Suzuki Vitara.
Then there is the Jimny, a bonafide 4x4 that is to off-roaders what the MX-5 is to sports cars. Praised for its back-to-basics simplicity and off-road capability, the Jimny earned a legion of hardcore fans as well.
For a brand with so much built up goodwill and brand capital, it was unfortunately hobbled by its distributor, DRB-Hicom, which squandered it.
While aftersales service was adequate for bread-and-butter models such as the CKD Swift, less care was given to the rest of its CBU models.
None of this was more evident than in 2010 when my former publication, Cars, Bikes & Trucks, teamed up with a Suzuki dealership, Aiman Motors to campaign a Suzuki Swift Sport in the Merdeka Millennium Endurance Race.
The idea was to turn a road-legal Swift Sport into a race car with minimal modifications. The interior was stripped, and a roll cage added for safety regulations, but apart from that, the car would have stock internals. Simple enough.
In preparation for the race, we were surprised to learn that there weren’t any spare Swift Sport clutches stocked in Malaysia. Only at the eleventh hour were we able to fly one in from stockists in Singapore.
One might say that there is little point of stocking spare parts for a fully imported niche model that only registers single-digit sales. But I digress.
As an official model in the line-up, there is a certain level of aftersales expectation to be had from an official importer, having a handful of essential spare part items on hand being one of them.
Besides that, the pricing of its CBU models was uncompetitive and the marketing was lacklustre. Brilliant models like the Swift Sport and Kizashi fell into relative obscurity, and it looked as though the Suzuki name couldn’t grow beyond the CKD Swift.
The departure of the Suzuki brand from Malaysia with Proton Holdings and DRB-Hicom’s rationalisation plan in 2016 felt more like a mercy killing than a tragedy.
Luckily, if rumours are correct on who will be taking up the Suzuki mantle in Malaysia, the brand will be better represented than its former stewards. Selling it to Malaysians however, is another story.
When it comes to Suzuki, the question isn’t “what should it sell?” but “what shouldn’t it sell?”. Go to their global site and you’d find 15 models listed. And this isn’t mentioning the many kei-car models it sells in Japan.
Most of these models are comprised of A- and B-segment models, and small SUVs. That is an immense concentration of models in such a small (pardon the pun) segment of the market. Does the saturated Malaysian car market have space for Suzuki to squeeze in with its ensemble of models?
Realistically, only two models have an assured chance of making it back to the Malaysian market, which is the Swift and Vitara. Both models already carry the name familiarity and goodwill of past models.
But what about the Jimny? 2019's darling of the internet. Less romantic love letters have been written compared to the internet's love for Suzuki's adorable little off-roader.
Sorry to break it to you, but it will likely remain a niche model. Like most internet celebrities, they are better adored from the screen than they are interacting with in real life.
Small enough to fit luggage or rear-seat passengers, but not both, the Jimny’s rough body-on-frame ride and modest 1.5-litre inline-four naturally-aspirated engine make driving on any road a chore.
More cart than a car, the Jimny will remain a niche model that is paradoxically best suited for those whose addresses is in an estate and tarred roads is a yet to be fulfilled government promise.
Aside from those three, Suzuki’s new distributor will have a tough time picking out other models to introduce into Malaysia.
Though, it is safe to say that Suzuki’s kei-car models like the Alto, Wagon R, and Hustler won’t be making the cut with Malaysia’s new UNECE vehicle type approval regulations.
Budget models that were destined for India too would be best left off the boat. Models like the Celerio and S-Presso wouldn’t stand a chance against the local Perodua Axia and Proton Iriz.
Foreign-built A-segment models have historically failed to crack into the bottom end of the Malaysian market. It is unlikely that the Celerio and S-Presso will be any different.
Other models that might be a niche too far would be the “marginally-larger-than-the-Swift” Baleno and the “slightly-raised-Swift” SX4 S-Cross, which will fragment the Swift’s own share of the market.
On the other hand, Suzuki has three models that could spice up the market. The Ignis hatchback blends butch SUV styling into an attractive package.
The Ertiga-based XL7 pseudo-SUV has promise of being a great alternative to the Honda BR-V. And if Suzuki’s penchant for making fun small cars is any indication, the Thai-built Ciaz sedan looks like a promising entrant into the excellent City-Vios-Almera compact sedan spat that is brewing.
All these possible model introductions are mere speculation on my part, so take it with a healthy serving of salt. However, this speculation goes to show that Suzuki does have a modest chance of making a comeback into Malaysia. It does have the right products with a range of interesting turbocharged inline-four and inline-three engines to choose from.
While it may not be makers of exotic halo models – not like most consumers could afford it - its consistency and expertise in delivering excellent products in small modest packages would strike a chord with Malaysian car buyers.
All it needs the right distributor to give Malaysian owners the ownership experience they expect of the Suzuki name. Hopefully, it will get a second chance to make a first impression this time around.
After a life of growing up with Malaysia bustling streets, Daniel set out to experience Australia open roads and ute culture for himself but ended up missing destination:makan morning drives and teh-tarik sessions. Our often-peculiar love of cars served as the inspiration for his musings at The Motor Muse.