By Craig Van Batenburg, AAM
Technicians continue to complain about new motor vehicles that are poorly designed for service and repair. Until all the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) consider the technician in the design process, I will keep writing and talking about this subject. As we continue our series analyzing redesigned cars, trucks, vans and SUVs, we pose that age-old question: "Have car engineers considered technicians when designing cars?"
Suzuki is our next OEM to examine. It has been making some great motorcycles for a long time, but how are their four-wheeled wonders from Japan?
You don't win motorcycle championships by luck. In 1993, Kevin Schwantz was the world Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme champion on a Suzuki factory 500CC GP bike. In 2000, Travis Pastrana won the 125 East Supercross championship on an RM 125. Mickael Pichon won the world RM250 250 Moto-Cross Championship on a Suzuki in 2001. Ricky Carmical won the National 250 Supercross and World Supercross Championship in 2005 on a Suzuki RM250. Suzukis win a lot of races.
If you can build a world superbike road racer, does that translate into a good street car or SUV? Honda did it in the '70s. From world-class motorcycle racing, both on and off road, Honda built an empire. No one disputes the fact that Honda cars are good. They sell well, are reliable, get good mileage and most techs would recommend them to their customers. BMW makes good motorcycles, and their cars are well liked, solidly built and popular. Only one more car company sells two-wheeled machines and that is Suzuki.
Both Honda and BMW have built a good name with engineering as their strength. Why hasn't Suzuki taken advantage of this strength? Why doesn't Suzuki brag a little bit about its history? Why? Because it is not what old Japanese families do.
A few years ago, I met with Ryosaku "Rick" Suzuki, president of American Suzuki Corporate Operation. Rick is the grandson of Osamu Suzuki, founder of Suzuki Motors. Rick is a great blend of old Japanese gentleman and wild American fun lover. When asked if he is a relative of Suzuki, Rick avoids the answer if you let him. He does not want you to place any weight on his relationship to the Suzuki family. He wants to be given credit for his role in Suzuki's success in America and not be thought of as "just the grandson." Any shop owner's son can tell you the same thing. It is tough to follow in your father's footsteps.
Why is it important for you to understand the men and women of Suzuki? For the same reasons you choose what parts supplier you will use - recommending a car to a good customer is equally important. Rusty Savignac, a co-owner of Paxton Garage in Paxton, Mass., drives a Suburban. This fits his needs, but he also just bought a new Accord. Ask Rusty, "What should I buy?" and Honda is on his short list. What is on your list? If you want your customers to be happy, the car they buy better be reliable, last a long time and be serviceable.
Suzuki has less than 1 percent market share in the United States. That is not much after almost two decades of selling the Suzuki brand to potential car buyers. The reason why I chose Suzuki this time around is simple. They are on the rise, and a new Suzuki Aerio all-wheel-drive wagon was just added to the Van Batenburg family of cars. Deb, my wife, fell in love with a little techno blue one at Harr Suzuki, just two blocks from our house. Driving through New England winters just got a bit easier.
Suzukis don't break down often. They are easy to maintain. The engine construction is Honda-like, color-coded bearings for a tight fit, good quality and smart designs. With proper oil changes, 300,000-mile engines are not uncommon. Most Suzukis use chains, not belts, for cam movement. The four-wheel vehicles are small but access under the hood is good. The V6 is tight, but not unlike most V6 engines. Most techs have little to complain about when working on these cars and small SUVs.
Enough about family business; let's look at the new 2006 Aerio. This Suzuki has plenty of power. When introduced in 2002, it had a 2-liter, 141 horsepower, twin cam, all-aluminum engine; now it is a 2.3. Open the hood, and everything is easy to get to. The Aerio has a trick muffler with a valve inside for low and high revs. This car has room inside. Preventative maintenance is simple. After removing four 8mm bolts, a plastic cover pops off and the underhood landscape is clear. If the 2006 Aerio requires the engine control module (ECM) to be reprogrammed, it would need to be done with the SDS tool, which is Suzuki's factory scan tool. The SDS tool is an essential and special tool that every Suzuki dealer has. An all-wheel drive model is also offered, with an Aisin transmission. Aisin builds the hybrid transmissions on the Ford Escape.
Will this car catch on or go the way of the XL-90 or Esteem? If technicians were in the salesroom and the public knew this car existed, sales would be easy. For a car company this talented (the Aerio is as good as your Civic or Corolla), it makes one wonder, "What is missing?" After four years in the marketplace, it is still a rare sighting.
Suzuki Esteem was a good car to service. It was sold in the United States from 1995 to 2002. Normally we look at the old versus new model. The Aerio was new from the ground up in 2002. So comparing it to the Esteem is not fair.
Aerio Ups: Quality is better; fewer problems. Very few technical service bulletins on this car. Easy to service.
Aerio Downs: There are not many on the road, so any tricks and tips you learn will not be used very often.
Overall rating: The quality is good on mechanicals, some interior pieces are a bit iffy, but for the money it is a good bet. The ease of service is best of class, partly due to a simple design, a four-cylinder engine, chain cam drive, and lots of room under the hood. Suzuki can still improve its quality. With the price of gas, look for more Aerios coming in for service. If you get one, relax. It might not be a bad day after all.