LOS ANGELES — Quick, name the mass-market vehicle brand with the largest decline in U.S. sales this year.
It has to be one of the Detroit 3 brands, right?
Wrong. The worst performer on a percentage basis was Suzuki, down 60.2 percent in the first half of 2009. In June, sales plummeted 78.0 percent compared with the same month last year.
Why would an Asian brand that builds small, fuel-efficient vehicles — the recipe for Detroit's rebirth as envisioned in Washington — be at the bottom of the heap?
Blame it on a shrunken product lineup, skimpy marketing and an ineffective captive finance company, which have made Suzuki all but invisible among the Asian players.
Suzuki is the latest second-tier Japanese brand to hit the skids in the United States, and some analysts wonder whether it is the next one headed for oblivion in this market.
"Suzuki had momentum, but they lost it," says a Northeastern dealer who declined to be named.
The company has failed to transfer the strength of its brand in other types of vehicles to its cars and crossovers.
"People spend $6,000 on a Suzuki ATV, $12,000 on a Hayabusa (superbike) and $18,000 on a Suzuki outboard," says Tim Faith, owner of Suzuki Auto Center in Corpus Christi, Texas. "But they question spending $21,000 on an XL-7."
The decline has been rapid. In 2006, American Suzuki finally achieved a decade-long quest to sell 100,000 vehicles, a level it maintained the following year. But this year Suzuki will be lucky to crack 40,000.
In a May 25 conference call with Suzuki's national and regional sales managers, 17 Florida dealers admitted that combined they had sold just nine vehicles that month.
The slide already has had an impact on the dealership count, which has skidded from 460 stores in July 2008 to about 380 today.
A Suzuki official says two-thirds of Suzuki dealers are in the black. But Mark Johnson, a dealership buy-sell consultant in Seattle, says that recent buy-sell transfers of Suzuki stores usually have blue-sky amounts from "zero to the low five figures," meaning dealers don't see much value in the franchise. Blue sky measures a dealership's intangible assets, such as goodwill.