DETROIT - American Suzuki Motor Corp. smells an opportunity in small station wagons.
During the last two years Toyota and Chevrolet have bailed out of the segment. 'It's an area with limited competition,' said Gary Anderson, Suzuki vice president of sales and marketing. So Suzuki will enter the fray in August with a wagon version of the Esteem sedan.
Suzuki said the Esteem wagon will be offered as an affordable alternative to compact sport-utilities. It will be a vehicle for young, active buyers who want a carlike ride, Anderson said. That despite the fact the Esteem wagon has no off-road capability, and an all-wheel-drive version is at least a year away.
Anderson has high expectations, 'based on our dealers and what they see happening in the market.'
His optimism is based, in part, on the success of the Esteem sedan. American Suzuki sold 3,713 Esteems in the first five months of this year, up 38 percent from the same period in 1996. The Esteem accounted for 28.7 percent of American Suzuki's five-month sales this year. As of June 3, Suzuki's 300 dealers had 1,005 Esteems in inventory, which is the end of the allotment for the 1997 model year.
Anderson said American Suzuki expects to sell about 12,000 Esteems during its 1997-98 fiscal year, which began in April, and 30 to 50 percent of them will be wagons. That would mirror Suzuki's experience in Europe, where the wagon makes up 40 percent of Esteem sales. In Japan, 70 percent of Esteems sold are wagons.
But the wagon's limited competition in the United States is formidable and includes the segment-leading Ford Escort, as well as the Subaru Impreza, Saturn SW and Hyundai Elantra.
Suzuki's strategy for breaking into the segment is to pitch the value of the Esteem wagon. When it goes on sale in August, the wagon will be priced below $12,500. The base model includes air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette stereo and a rear window wiper. A fully loaded GLX+, which includes a sunroof and antilock brakes, will be about $16,000, Anderson said.
Suzuki's buyer profile says the wagon will appeal to people from 25 to 49, with a median income of $35,000. The Esteem wagon rides on the sedan's 97.6-inch wheelbase and uses its 95-horsepower, single-overhead-cam 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. But the wagon is 5.9 inches longer and 133 pounds heavier than the sedan.