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Even though Suzuki is a comparative newcomer to the American automobile marketplace, the company has a long history-starting in the textile world. In addition, Suzuki-built cars reached the U.S. market earlier than people may realize, because the first ones were issued as Chevrolet models.
Back in 1909, the Suzuki Loom Manufacturing Company was formed by Michio Suzuki. In the years just before World War II, the Japanese government encouraged automobile production. So, Suzuki decided to give cars a try. After a few prototypes were built, all-out military conflict was underway and further development ceased.
After the war, loom production resumed, but no cars came out of the Suzuki factory. Instead, the first transportation products were motorized bicycles. After studying European automotive design, in 1955 Suzuki created the front-drive Suzulight, with an air-cooled two-stroke engine.
An evolution of the Suzulight, the Fronte 800, appeared in 1967 with a three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. Water-cooled engines replaced the air-cooled units in 1974, and the first four-stroke engine arrived in 1977.
Early in 1980, Suzuki issued an Alto hatchback, but still had no exports to the American market. Then came the Cultus, which turned into the Chevrolet Sprint minicar in the U.S. (General Motors owned a share of Suzuki.)
Not until the 1986 model year did a Suzuki-built vehicle enter the U.S. market under its own name. That was the four-wheel-drive compact Samurai SUV. Bad news came in 1988, when Consumer Reports claimed that Samurais were subject to rollover accidents during fast directional changes. Critics cited a too-short wheelbase as one reason for the Samurai's propensity to tip over. These allegations got considerable publicity. Therefore, even when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration eventually ruled in Suzuki's favor, sales had suffered.
Meanwhile, a larger Sidekick SUV (made in Canada) went on sale. General Motors offered a version of its own, called the Geo Tracker. Geo was a brand name used for imported vehicles, sold by Chevrolet dealers, from the late 1980s to 1997.
For 1989, a version of the Chevrolet Sprint minicar-which became the Geo Metro-went on sale as the Suzuki Swift. While Geo focused on the econocar aspects of the Metro, Suzuki also offered a 100-horsepower performance variant: the Swift GTI two-door hatchback, with sporty body add-ons. A 70-hp engine went into the regular Swift. In 1990, a four-door notchback replaced the Swift hatchback, and the 100-hp version was called GT.
Samurais disappeared in 1995, followed by the Sidekick in 1998. A year later, Suzuki had a far different compact SUV on sale called the Vitara. In addition to the expected closed wagon, the Vitara came as a two-door convertible on a shorter wheelbase. Also offered was a heftier Grand Vitara with a six-cylinder engine rather than a four. To attract customers who sought seven-passenger capacity, Suzuki added an XL-7 sport-utility vehicle in 2001.
Meanwhile, another soft-top SUV had appeared in 1996, but disappeared two years later. That was the X-90 two-seater, a curiosity intended to attract younger buyers but referred to by one observer as reminiscent of a "clown car."
Suzuki introduced the Aerio subcompact sedan and wagon for 2002, as a replacement for the Esteem series, which had appeared in 1995. In 2007, a new SX4 subcompact all-wheel-drive wagon replaced the Aerio four-door hatchback. An SX4 Sport sedan joined the next year, followed by a front-drive version.
During the mid-2000s, Suzuki came up with a series of Korean-built cars that didn't last more than a few seasons: the six-cylinder Verona sedan, compact Forenza sedan, and hatchback Reno. Suzuki introduced a compact Equator pickup in 2009, closely related to Nissan's Frontier. Latest member of the Suzuki family is the midsize Kizashi sedan, introduced for 2010.