RIDGEDALE, Mo. - Gary Anderson is ready to put a dismal 1997 behind him.
In fact, the vice president of American Suzuki Motor Corp. would like to forget the last nine years.
So say goodbye to the Sidekick Sport, Sidekick, Swift and X-90. For now, American Suzuki will focus on two Japan-made models - the Esteem and the all-new Grand Vitara - and the Canadian-made Vitara.
'You have to remember, we haven't done anything for nine years,' Anderson said, referring to the company's past marketing strategy and products.
'Now the consumer will start hearing about Suzuki,' he said during the press introduction of the Grand Vitara here.
American Suzuki is working toward a sales goal of 100,000 units for fiscal year 2000, which ends March 31, 2001. U.S. sales this fiscal year are expected to reach 40,000 to 45,000 units, Anderson said, which would represent a dramatic increase from fiscal 1997 sales of 32,257 units.
Anderson pins his hopes on the new four-door Grand Vitara, the more powerful successor to the imported Sidekick Sport, which the company plans to launch in August.
TARGETS: CR-V, RAV4
Anderson hopes the Grand Vitara, with its new 24-valve, 2.5-liter V-6 engine rated at 155 horsepower, will pull customers away from the comparably priced Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The RAV4 and CR-V, like the current Side-kick Sport, have four-cylinder engines.
American Suzuki will announce prices for the Grand Vitara in August. But the price for a four-door RAV4 ranges from $16,718 to $18,128, including a $420 destination charge in most states, while the four-door CR-V ranges from $19,145 to $20,645, including a $395 destination charge.
The company forecasts initial sales of 1,500 to 2,000 units per month for the Grand Vitara during the rest of 1998, Anderson said. Backed by a more comprehensive advertising campaign and a more aggressive dealer body, those figures could rise to 2,500 to 3,000 per month in 1999, he said.
Sidekick Sport sales in the United States are about 1,000 per month, he said.
Beginning in December, Ameri-can Suzuki will replace its regular Sidekick with the 1999 Vitara four-door. That will be followed in January by a two-door convertible.
The Vitara, featuring a new 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 127 hp, will be assembled by CAMI Automotive Inc., the joint venture between Suzuki and General Motors in Ingersoll, Ontario. An-derson expects Vitara sales to surpass Sidekick sales, currently about 500 units per month.
RESCUER: ESTEEM WAGON
CAMI assembles the regular Sidekick as well as the Chevrolet Tracker, the sister vehicle of the Sidekick. The new 1999 Tracker is based on the 1999 Vitara.
The X-90, also assembled by CAMI, will not return for the 1999 model year, the company said.
So far this year, the Esteem wagon has been the company's saving grace.
American Suzuki's car sales dropped 17.3 percent in calendar 1997. But sales through April have doubled from a year earlier, to 7,761 units, mainly because of the wagon. The Esteem sedan was introduced in 1995; the wagon was added in 1997.
In August, the Esteem sedan and wagon will get a redesigned front end for the 1999 model year. Next March, the 1999 wagon also will get a bigger 1.8-liter engine based on the Sidekick Sport's engine. The current Esteem 1.6-liter engine is rated at 95 hp; the Sidekick Sport engine is rated at 120 hp.
American Suzuki's compact car, the Swift, will still be available for the 1999 model year, but supplies will be limited, Anderson said. CAMI also assembles the Swift.
The 100,000-unit goal is not an ultimatum from the parent company, Anderson said. 'If we don't meet it (in 2000), we'll get there the following year. But we'll get there.'