Suzuki was the first Japanese Automobile Company to enter India. Their entry into India was due to the cherished dream of a man who wanted to make affordable motor cars and because his mother had the tenacity to ensure that the dream would become reality even after his death. Yes, I am talking about the infamous Sanjay Gandhi and his mother the Prime Minister of India Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Sanjay Gandhi started work on an indigenous car, prototypes were made and one fatal morning he died in an air crash while performing aerobatics. He was the one who called his company Maruti. Post this Mrs. Gandhi as the Prime Minister scouted around for international partners who would provide the small car for Indian masses. Renault and Suzuki were the main contenders and Suzuki won. So Maruti Udyog Limited was born and it made the 800cc Suzuki Fronte in India as the Maruti 800 for two years before the Alto from Japan replaced the Fronte as the Maruti 800. You know the rest of that history, so let us not invoke it anymore.
Even in the two wheeler space Suzuki became the first Japanese company to come into India with India Motorcycles Limited a company that was later to become Ind-Suzuki Motorcycles, then TVS-Suzuki Motorcycles and now TVS Motor Company. The first Suzuki two wheeler that came into India was the Suzuki AX100. It sold reasonably well and made a name for itself. TVS decided to become an engineering company in its own right and therefore used the AX100 as a base for other motorcycles that it later created. Strangely TVS while doing most of the development work on the engine of the AX100 and developing newer models like the Samurai, Shogun and the Shaolin, dropped its own name and all the three models that have been mentioned above did not bear the TVS name anywhere. They were sold as Suzukis. Later a 150cc model called the Fiero with Suzuki technology was launched and it was sold as a Suzuki.
Anybody who has been following the history of Suzuki will know that Suzuki is a notoriously difficult partner to have. Its latest is that it has fought with Volkswagen and dragged the latter to the International Court of Arbitration. Even with Maruti it engaged in a prolonged combat with huge advertisements running into two broadsheets informing the people of India that Suzuki made no money through Maruti and threatened to take Maruti to the International Court of Arbitration. Maruti could fight back only because it was a Govt company. In the two wheeler arena, the relationship between Suzuki and TVS soured and since TVS was the majority partner in the joint venture it exercised its option of buying out Suzuki’s stake in TVS-Suzuki. The head of TVS, Venu Srinivasan, successfully negotiated with Suzuki and prevented them from setting up a company on their own or with another Indian company for a certain period of time. His reasoning was that by selling TVS-Suzuki products as Suzukis, TVS had built the Suzuki brand and that he needed time to build the TVS brand separately so that Suzuki would not gain an upper hand unfairly in the market. Fair enough.
Suzuki did come back into the Indian market but when it did so, it was almost reluctantly and very lethargically. Though the Indian company is called Suzuki Motorcycles India Pvt Limited, it has Indian partners in it and very little is known of the Indian partners’ business track record. Suzuki in the new millennium decided to be a four stroke company, something that was forced on all motorcycle manufacturers. Suzuki decided to not get into the 100cc space because of the overwhelming domination of Hero Honda in that space. Suzuki quietly tried to do what Rajiv Bajaj loudly announced he was doing. That was to try to obliterate the 100cc motorcycle in the minds of the Indian consumer and make the 125cc the new 100cc. The logic of this game plan is simple to understand. Hero Honda is not known for its 125cc products despite having the Super Splendor and the Glamour range in that space. Suzuki tried to create a 125cc motorcycle that would be like a 100cc.
It launched the Heat (which was squarely aimed at the rural population) and the Zeus (which had some styling cues and was aimed at the urban commuter). Both motorcycles shared the same 125cc mill which put out power that 100cc motorcycles were putting out but also importantly they had lot of torque. However, they received a lot of bad press from the automotive journalists and failed to take off. Suzuki then took advantage of the liberalization of import norms and brought its famous Hayabusa (which is the Japanese name given to a falcon) and the massive cruiser the Intruder. The reputation of the Hayabusa is legendary and Suzuki was trying to showcase its technological prowess by putting this motorcycle up for sale. In continuation of this approach Suzuki later on brought in the GSX1000R sports motorcycle also. The Hayabusa was displayed briefly in some dealer showrooms and people went there to look and gasp in awe but ultimately came back without buying one because of its stratospheric price. The showing off of these motorcycles did little for the sales of the Heat and Zeus, both of which disappeared from the mind space of the Indian commuter. It looked like Suzuki was following in the foot steps of Yamaha and was committing hara kiri.
At that time Suzuki showed what Yamaha did not, the smartness to aim for the hugely overbooked Activa space. The Honda Activa commanded waiting lists and Suzuki saw an opportunity to get into the scooter space and garner some market share. So it launched the 125cc, metal bodied, unisex scooter called the Access. Perhaps it was to tell the scooter buyer that while they did not get the Activa they had Access to a better scooter. The Access indeed was a better scooter. It had telescopic suspension up front, a super smooth and torquey motor, styling that offended none and it produced the desired effect. Many who could not wait for the Activa decided to plumb in for the Access.
It also produced another undesirable effect. Suzuki entered the market rather cautiously and therefore did not build up manufacturing capacity. When frustrated buyers moved in droves from Activa to Access, the Access also went the Activa way and a waiting period of 3 months is still in place if one wants an Access. In the meanwhile Suzuki had launched a 150cc motorcycle called the GS150R but the sales of this bike too have been tepid thanks to Suzuki wanting to concentrate on its cash cow the Access. Suzuki also expanded its big bike portfolio to bring in the Bandit and the Intruder 800 more recently to take on the lower capacity Harley Davidsons and the Hyosung ST7 and in a round about way even the Ninja650R from Kawasaki.
However what matters most is the fact that Suzuki is showing signs that it is not being sluggish anymore. It withdrew the Heat and the Zeus from the 125cc space and replaced them with a slightly more stylish bike called the Slingshot. Not only is the name strange but its ads were stranger. But let us let that be. Suzuki’s intentions at the Auto Expo are the ones that are worthy of mention. First of all the Suzuki area buzzed with energy and optimism. All its international models worthy of mention were there. The V Strom could come to India. But more importantly they showed two new mass market products, a scooter and a motorcycle.
The scooter is another and more stylish iteration of the Access, is aimed at the younger population, has a lot more style and is called the Swish. The motorcycle is the more important one. It is Suzuki’s first 110cc, that means that it is entering, the 100cc commuter space and is called the Hayate. Strange choice of name. When Kawasaki withdrew from MotoGP and when it was forced back on to the MotoGP grid by invoking legal clauses, Kawasaki raced as Hayate (apparently Japanese for Hurricane in Kawasaki speak and Gentle wind in Suzuki speak, so you decide which is correct). Suzuki is showing signs of coming back to life and shrugging of its lethargy. Now to build that all important capacity and we could be seeing more relevant for the mass market Suzukis on the roads.