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Suzuki’s remarkable South African redemption

Suzuki has a long history in South Africa, but its car business is a story of interruption.

The Japanese compact car brand disengaged from South Africa during the 1980s and returned in the 1990s.

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Complicated local distribution agreements (with General Motors), saw Suzuki exit its South African market presence again in 2004. During Suzuki’s second South African chapter it only offered the Vitara range, which had very limited appeal and was an extremely niche player.

Although revered for its motorcycles and marine outboard motors, by the mid-2000s, South Africans had almost forgotten Suzuki cars.

That all changed in 2008. Buoyed by a South African new car market that peaked at 714 340 in 2006, Suzuki strategized re-engaging with South Africa. And its success was predictable. Distinctive designs, Japanese build quality and mechanical integrity. These were all Suzuki features that South African buyers were aching for in a market where the established Japanese product matrix was too boring, and German alternatives too expensive and poorly equipped.

Rebuilding the Suzuki brand

Although the iconic Jimny, Grand Vitara and Swift were Suzuki’s initial product strategy, the range has expanded immensely over the last decade and a half. And it’s not been a question of dilution. Suzuki has added more models and seen absolute sales volumes increase beyond what could have been predicted in 2008.

In a troubled local market, which is much smaller in real terms than it was in 2008, Suzuki offers cheerful designs at an affordable price. Yes, those Suzukis that now constitute the bulk of local sales are Indian-built cars, not the Japanese and European spec Suzukis that rebuilt the brand’s standing in 2008. However, they offer exactly what South Africans need regarding price, rough road ability, and mechanical simplicity in 2024.

The cars South Africans need

Despite a smaller market and more rival brands, Suzuki is now the third most popular passenger car brand in South Africa. That’s a remarkable achievement. It also proves the merit of a brand doing what it does well instead of trying to become something it is not.

Suzuki has always been a compact car company. The Kizashi sedan was the largest vehicle it ever offered in the local market, but that’s still a mid-sized sedan and much smaller as a vehicle class than most of the oversized SUVs and bakkies made by its rivals.

When all your company resources and engineering talent are committed to creating cars of the same relative size and configuration, that focus yields quality results. And this is the case with Suzuki. It doesn’t try to move upmarket and create products beyond its brand legacy.

The company has remained true to its brand values, established decades ago, of engineering compact cars with robust mechanical build quality. And the South African market, with its troubling affordability crisis and demanding road conditions, has responded in kind.

Despite not having the benefits of local production or a bakkie product range, like Toyota and VW, when the numbers are tallied, Suzuki sits a very comfortable third in the overall market.

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