Best-Selling Car in Japan Is a Suzuki -- Yes, Suzuki (With an Asterisk)

Last Updated Aug 30, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

Advertising claims can go in one ear and out the other, but here's one that stuck with me: a recent Suzuki (SZKMY.PK) ad on TV said Suzuki had the biggest-selling car in Japan. No fooling?

Most Americans in or out of the auto industry would probably guess the biggest-selling car in Japan would have to be a Toyota. (In a way, they're right, more on that below) Or maybe a Nissan or a Honda. Suzuki is poorly known in the United States, and when it's known at all, it's often for all the wrong things, like poor quality.

A notorious "unacceptable" rating years ago from Consumer Reports sunk U.S. sales of the Suzuki Samurai and for the Suzuki brand in general, even though Suzuki helped launch the small-SUV phenomenon in the United States. That was back in 1988. Suzuki sued the magazine and the case was settled in 2004.

Suzuki has been on a long road back in the U.S. market. Even though the brand is still pretty obscure, it has had some notable successes. Suzuki was the most-improved brand in a J.D. Power quality survey last year, and its U.S. sales tripled between 1997 and 2007.

And yes, it really did have the best-selling car in Japan for several years running, the cute little Suzuki Wagon R, a model that we don't get in the United States. That claim does get a big asterisk, because the Suzuki Wagon R is so small, with such a small engine, that it's considered a "minicar." It's a popular category in Japan, but doesn't exist in the United States. Minicars have a truly tiny engine smaller than 660 cc, and some other size restrictions. The one-liter, three-cylinder engine in the Smart fortwo, for instance, is too big to qualify.

That could change, if the Smart brand manages to hang on in the United States long enough to get different engine choices. A few tiny cars from other brands, like the Chevy Spark, might qualify some day, with a small enough engine. If gas prices take off again in the U.S. market, maybe we'll start seeing cars like the Suzuki Wagon R.

In the meantime, the Toyota (TM) Prius recently unseated the Suzuki Wagon R as the biggest-selling car in Japan, according to press reports. However, Suzuki still argues that the Suzuki Wagon R is the biggest-selling minicar. And if you total up almost 3.5 million sales since the first generation of the Wagon R went on sale in 1993, it's still the biggest seller.

Even with a couple of asterisks, that's still a pretty good claim, and one that's hard to imagine from a U.S. perspective. Suzuki may be struggling in the U.S. market, but it gets a lot of respect elsewhere.


Photo: Suzuki