While still far behind the giants -- Toyota's Camry alone, for example, sells four times that annually in the U.S. -- it's nonetheless a respectable showing for Suzuki, achieved through hard work (increasing its ad budget and winning over higher-end buyers) and luck (its small Grand Vitara hit last fall just as buyers were shunning big SUVs because of gas prices).
"We seem to have the right image and the right product at the right time," said Tom Carney, who moved in April to VP-sales from director-sales and marketing.
Beefed up ad budget
Helped along by a beefed-up ad budget -- spending rose to $107 million last year from $77 million in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence -- brand awareness for Suzuki jumped more than 30% and buyer consideration by 15% over the past year, Mr. Carney said. The brand has also been pulling in more educated and affluent buyers.
Suzuki has been through boom-and-bust spells in the past, but Todd Turner, president of consultant CarConcepts, said he's encouraged because its current growth isn't coming from cheap, entry-level cars. "They are doing it with vehicles that cost $20,000-plus and that indicates this turnaround has legs."
Suzuki had been unable to reach even 50,000 in annual U.S. sales from 1989 through 1999. This year, though, it sold nearly 65,000 units through July, up 32%. Grand Vitara sales shot up 500% to 16,974 units through July vs. a year ago, while sales of Suzuki's most popular model line, the Forenza, rose 27% to 30,329 units.
New SX4 model
Mr. Carney expects an even bigger boost from the automaker's SX4 sporty crossover, which launches next month. Starting at $14,999 it will be the lowest-priced model in the U.S. with standard all-wheel drive. Dentsu's Colby & Partners, Santa Monica, Calif., was shooting spots last week. The SX4 succeeds the Aerio hatchback, which is being phased out after the 2006 model year.
Suzuki will promote the SX4 behind the automaker's first concert sponsorship in tandem with its motorcycle arm, handled by the Nashville office of the William Morris Agency. Suzuki is the title sponsor of alternative Christian rock band Kutless, which starts a 21-city tour, "The Hearts of the Innocent," Oct. 25 in Birmingham, Ala.