Suzuki admits that in recent years it has taken a very cautious approach to business as it has worked its way through the dangerous days caused by the global financial crisis.
The upside has been continued business growth on the back of existing product, despite some disastrous business events in some parts of the world, particularly North America.
So far this year its global revenue has increased by 12 per cent over last year, and the company has achieved record income returns. Vehicle sales have also been good, totalling 2.7 million - 63 per cent of them outside of Japan.
But what Suzuki hasn't done during that time is introduce anything new. All this sales and revenue growth has been with product that has been on the markets for several years. For example, the last entirely new Suzuki vehicle launched in New Zealand is the Kizashi, almost four years ago.
At a media conference in Australia last week, executives from Suzuki Motor Corporation admitted the time has now come for the company to stop treading water, and move on to the financially riskier business of introducing brand-new product.
First will be a model called S-Cross, a 1.6-litre vehicle that will go on sale in New Zealand on January 18 in both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive forms and with entry GLX and more luxurious Limited levels of specification.
It's actually a replacement for the SX4 hatch, although that model will continue to sell in New Zealand for a little while yet. S-Cross will be followed by at least one new vehicle a year over the next three to four years, with the next models likely to be a replacement for the Alto hatch, followed by a brand-new SUV, called iV-4 at this stage, that in terms of size is likely to replace the current Vitara.
"We're finally able to start showing off new product," said Suzuki Australia general manager Tony Devers. "It's going to be nice to see the end of what has been a fairly frustrating time."
Built in Hungary, the S-Cross is to be marketed here as a five-door hatchback with crossover potential - meaning that Suzuki sees the vehicle as being capable of competing against product ranging in size from the Holden Trax through to the Mitsubishi ASX and the Nissan Qashqai.
In fact, during its development the S-Cross was benchmarked against the Qashqai - which is far more popular in Europe than it is here - so in terms of dimensions the new Suzuki is about the same size as the Nissan. Actually, if you parked the two vehicles together then stood back and squinted, it would probably be difficult to differentiate between the two.
Engine sizes are different though. While the Qashqai is a 2.0-litre crossover, the S-Cross is powered by a 1.6-litre DOHC petrol engine that is a de-powered development of the Swift Sport's power unit.
It is lighter in weight than that aboard the Swift, and it features considerably lower friction losses thanks to such developments as lower-tension piston rings, lighter pistons and connecting rods, a thinner crankshaft, narrower bearings, a two-stage oil pump with pressure relief valve, and reducing loading of the valve springs.
The engine develops 86 kilowatts of power and 156 newton metres of torque - the Swift Sport's equivalent figures are 100kW and 160Nm - and it is mated to either a five-speed manual transmission or a CVT automatic that can be operated manually via paddles on the steering wheel.
A second major difference is that the new Suzuki will be available as a front-drive model or with all-wheel drive. The AWD is a new-generation lightweight system called AllGrip, it is an on- demand mechanism that uses an electronically controlled magnetic dry clutch with ball bearings to manage torque distribution to the rear axle.
Whereas the SX4's all-wheel drive is a push-button system that defaults to front-wheel drive unless the driver selects an Auto function or AWD Lock, this new version defaults to Auto which lets the S-Cross operate as a front- drive car until wheel slippage is detected, and will then automatically transfer torque to all four wheels.
With AllGrip the driver can also use a rotating knob to choose three other modes - Sport, Snow and Lock.
Sport diverts 20 per cent more torque to the rear in response to sharper throttle inputs, while the Snow mode is intended for use in loose surfaces such as gravel roads. The Lock mode replicates a locking differential by sending an equal amount of torque to each wheel.
S-Cross is a pleasant-looking vehicle with a Kizashi-style front end, and it features a pronounced character line that sweeps back from the front bumper, over the wheel arches and into the rear lights. The Limited, with its 17-inch wheels and tyres, and silver roof rails and skid plates, looks particularly nice - especially when painted white.
The interior is more spacious than the current SX4, particularly for those in the back seats where there is 39mm more knee room, and with all seats in use it offers a very good 430 litres of load space at the rear, which is more than Qashqai and Mitsubishi ASX, and far more than the 270 litres on offer in the current SX4. The rear seats split and fold 60:40, and when these are folded down the load area increases to 875 litres.
So overall, the new S-Cross appeals as a practical and pleasant new vehicle. It rides and handles nicely too, thanks largely to the fact its body has 25 per cent more torsional rigidity than the SX4, yet is 110kg lighter - and is a massive 300kg lighter than the Grand Vitara SUV.
This makes the vehicle an ideal platform for installation of the smaller displacement engine. As a result, despite the fact the S-Cross is a 1.6-litre while the SX4 is 2.0-litres, the lighter weight of the new model gives it a superior power to weight ratio.
The new Suzuki immediately appeals as an easy car to drive. Last week's media event included a run down Victoria's serpentine Great Ocean Road and then inland through forest and dairy country, a route that offered plenty of opportunity to try out the handling.
In typical front-drive fashion the 2WD models exhibit some understeer when pushed, and the AWD models are obviously offer more secure handling capability. In all cases, the 1.6-litre engine exhibits willing if reasonably modest performance characteristics.
More to the point though is the fact that thanks to its crossover design, this new Suzuki S-Cross is an unusually spacious hatchback. That, plus the fact it is offered with all-wheel drive at what impress as very competitive prices, means it has the potential to install itself as the second most popular Suzuki behind the Swift.
- © Fairfax NZ News