Catching Up With Suzuki

Suzuki speaks up after years of ATV silence

Story by Seth Fargher, Dec. 12, 2012
 

A few weeks ago, we explored the Sport ATV segment and where it stands in terms of current models, new models and where some of the major players have gone in recent years. Without a doubt, the economy has played a huge role in the number of manufacturers keeping their hats in the ring, but one we were unsure of was Suzuki.

Historically, Suzuki has been a major player in the Sport ATV segment, reaching all the way back to the glory days of the late 1980s. While much of the 90s saw little activity in terms of new models, as the Sport segment began to pick up in the late 90s and early 2000s, Suzuki was among the first to offer an all new Sport ATV with the LTZ400.

Suzuki QuadSport Z400

We recently had a chance to catch up with Rod Lopusnak and Derek Schoeberle of American Suzuki to get an inside perspective on all things Suzuki, from its view and involvement in the sport segment to the recent EPA sanctions imposed on the manufacturer as well as the withdrawal of Suzuki’s automotive group from the US. 

Despite a lot of unpleasant words in that last sentence, things aren’t all doom and gloom for the Japanese manufacturer. In fact, by the end of the conversation we were quite encouraged by Suzuki’s outlook on the Sport ATV segment and the powersports industry as a whole. Sales numbers suggest things are on the upswing and while the segment is not at all what it was just five years ago, Suzuki’s growth in other markets is keeping the brand healthy and poised for a comeback if and when the market improves.

Hard Times

Suzuki LT-R450 Jump

It’s no surprise to anyone that the economy has put a damper on a lot of things and the Sport ATV market is no exception. At its peak, the powersports industry reported annual sales somewhere in the range of 1.6 million units - ATVs, UTVs, motorcycles, scooters, and the like. When the financial crisis hit, that number began shrinking by nearly eight thousand units per day until the figure settled somewhere around 600,000 per year.  That’s a decrease of 62.5% in one year! Granted that’s not all Sport ATVs, but when you look at numbers like that it makes it a little easier to see why so many OEMs have scaled back.

According to Lopusnak, the Sport ATV segment was hit harder than others largely due to the demographic of users. “The Sport segment is primarily a younger buyer,” offered Lopusnak. “The credit challenges [due to the economic climate] made it harder for a younger buyer to get on an ATV.”

In perspective, this makes a great deal of sense. The areas less affected by the slowing economy, like the utility ATV and side-by-side markets, have users with an older median age. With age comes…well a lot of things, one of which is typically a better credit rating.

Suzuki Z400 Cornering

In terms of supporting the segment, Suzuki is very pleased with its lone model, the LTZ400 and believes it is the best all around Sport ATV on the market. Released in 2003, the LTZ400 helped spark the return of factory support to ATV racing and has maintained its position as one of the top three selling Sport ATVs since its release.

After receiving a host of upgrades in 2009, including EFI and new bodywork to mimic the popular LT-R450, the LTZ400 has remained relatively unchanged.  In regards to why we haven’t seen any upgrades, Lopusnak offered that the segment just isn’t offering a lot in terms of growth. “Product drives our industry. If the market is there, we’ll build the product.”

EPA Sanctions?

Suzuki LT-R450 Front Right

One product that’s been painfully absent from Suzuki’s lineup in recent years is the Quadracer LT-R450. Suzuki voluntarily halted production on the LTR in 2009 due to an investigation by the EPA regarding emissions standards.

In September of this year, Suzuki reached an agreement with the EPA that included a $885,000 fine and several other sanctions intended to reduce the emission of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. 

With the LTR being one of the best performing and top selling Sport ATVs, it has certainly had an affect on the company’s market share, but has had little affect on the brand as a whole. According to Lopusnak, the motocross division is up by 107% and the utility segment, with its popular King Quad, as well as the street bike sales of its GSXR and Hayabusa products are doing very well.  For the time being, Suzuki will remain focused on the segments showing the most growth and considering the recent bankruptcy announcement of the Suzuki automotive group, we’re just pleased to hear that the powersports line is staying put.

In all actuality, the removal of the automotive group may in fact bolster the company’s presence in the powersports industry here in the US. With the automotive group gone, the motorcycle, ATV and marine segments will now be receiving 100% of the support from oversees where before Global Suzuki had been trying to establish an automotive presence in the largest automotive market in the world.

Racing

Doug Gust ATV Motocross

Of course, we can’t talk about Suzuki without mentioning its dominance in the ATV racing world and its list of racers that reads like a who’s who from the ATV racing Hall of Fame. Gary Denton lead the charge back in the 80s as the focus shifted from three to four wheels and Doug Gust, Tim Farr, and Jeremiah Jones were among the first racers to receive factory support when the OEMs re-entered ATV racing in the early 2000s. Dustin Wimmer and Josh Creamer won three consecutive championships for the manufacturer and Chris Borich has been dominating the GNCC circuit aboard a Suzuki, winning the XC1 class championship each of the last four years. Even the current ATVA motocross champion Chad Wienen spent some time under the Suzuki tent prior to his deals with Kawasaki, Can-Am, and now Yamaha.

It was an unfortunate blow to the industry when Suzuki pulled its factory ATV program in 2010, especially considering Josh Creamer had just wrapped up the series championship for the manufacturer and would not have an opportunity to defend his title. While Suzuki held on longer than some of the other OEMs, the economic climate forced Suzuki to pull the plug on its ATV racing program.

Chris Borich GNCC

“Supporting racing is in our DNA,” says Lopusnak. “It’s just not a segment that is growing now and hopefully that will change in the near future. We look at the numbers every month for possible opportunities or growth.”

For the time being, Suzuki will maintain its focus on those areas providing the most growth for the brand, namely Street, Utility, and Motocross; however, Lopusnak did mention Suzuki is keeping a watchful eye on the side-by-side market. Though he didn’t suggest anything beyond an interest, it seems unthinkable for any manufacturer to ignore the UTV market from either a Sport or Utility standpoint.

As we discovered before, while the current state of the Sport ATV market is much different than it was just a few years ago, several brands, including Suzuki continue to weather the economical storm and support the segment as best they can. We were pleased with its positive outlook on the future of the segment and hope that we won’t have to wait too long to see the manufacturer make a strong comeback.

Suzuki KingQuad 750 with Power Steering

At present, Suzuki remains committed to supporting the Sport ATV segment and stands ready to supply the product when the demand returns. “And it will,” says Lopusnak. “We went through this in the late 80s and early 90s. Then all [the manufacturers] came together to drive the industry.”

We appreciate his optimistic outlook and hope that time is soon!

Related Reading
ATV.com Q&A: Suzuki (From 2007)
American Suzuki Files Chapter 11
EPA Hits Suzuki with $885,000 Penalty and Other Sanctions
Suzuki Introduces Bold ATV Sales Promotion
2009 Suzuki QuadSport Z400 Review
2009 Suzuki QuadRacer LT-R450 Review
2009 Suzuki KingQuad 500AXI Review