Say so-long to Suzuki, as it sinks below the Stygian shore

“S,” as in “23-skidoo, keed”

Suzuki last week became the latest automotive brand to skulk away from the USA, following the Interstate that leads from the marketplace to the junkyard. That’s the route recently traversed by Saturn (d. 2009) and SAAB (d. 2011.) This ongoing trend tells us that “S” cars — that is, those with sibilants in their brands — seem destined to receive short shrift.

No need right now to recall Studebaker (d. 1966), but I will recommend taking out insurance policies against the few remaining “S” auto marques, Skoda and Subaru.

If you were to speculate on which linguistic function causes motorists to eschew vehicles with names that begin with sibilants, you might need to conclude, “I’ll bet it’s that darned onomonopia.”

Could be. Think “s,” and you will vividly imagine the serpentine sound of air escaping from your tires, or the “sss-s-s” of coolant streaming out of a sinuous length of hose somewhere under your hood.

Mr. Williams

Onomatopoeically speaking, hiss sounds bad, because it is bad. It is never anything you want to hear emitted, particularly from the Bose speakers of your upgraded automotive sound system, even when XM Radio is spinning ‘S Wonderful, ‘s-marvelous, the Gershwin Brothers smash selection from 1927. How we still shiver to hear the big voice of Mighty Joe Williams work his way through that tune, backed by the Count Basie Orchestra.

But don’t take that to mean you should hurry over to buy a Stanley Steamer off the Gershwin Brothers Motors lot on Sepulveda Boulevard, if such a dealership existed, even if Joe Williams hisself was anxiously trying to close the deal.

1912 Stanley Model F Touring: Still steamin’ at 100

To digress momentarily, the engineering technology behind a steam-powered vehicle, such as those manufactured by the Stanley Motor Carriage Company until its demise in 1924, would seem to offer strong appeal in this age of $4-a-gallon petroleum. Given the choice, I’d probably take a Steamer over the more recent alternate-energy jalopy, the electric-powered Chevrolet Volt. However, for all the many stumbles and missteps made by General Motors management, at least they didn’t stigmatize the plug-in Chev with an “S” name, and we acknowledge their wise stewardship in concentrating on bringing motorists only the most essential shortcomings: a high price-tag, and low driving range.

Suzuki, which once had a corporate relationship with GM, brought to market a suite of cars and SUVs that had a few things other than the “S” curse working against it. These would include a mediocre product line, dodgy reliability record, spotty dealer network, indifferent styling, and — let’s just face it — substandard sex appeal.

But it is a real thing, this Curse-of-the-19th-Letter-of-the-Basic-Latin-Alphabet, as the company found when it elected to double down on alliterative variations: Suzuki Swift, Suzuki Samurai, Suzuki Sierra, Suzuki Sidekick, Suzuki Splash (which failed to make one), Suzuki Solio (never confuse a green Solio with Soylent Green), and the familiar Suzuki SX4. The latter model is driven constantly by my cousin Rob, who is commissioner of a junior hockey league in northern Canada, who claims to actually like driving the thing to exotic places Suzukis were never equipped to explore. These would include “S” destinations such as Smooth Rock Falls and Sioux Lookout.

Solio, potentially misspelled as Soil-o. A possible problem?

It might appear Suzuki hit a snag when they skipped the “S” for the 2009 launch of a new upscale model. That was the Kizashi, which is still described on the company website, as late as this morning, as “The Auto Industry’s Best-Kept Secret.” Is that really something to brag about? I mean, you bring out a new product, and manage to keep the news from reaching potential purchasers for more than three straight years — and then you convince yourself this is supposed to be some kind of achievement?

It was merely 10 months earlier that the carmaker tried to spill the beans about their secret model, by dropping $3 million on a single Kizashi TV ad that aired during the 2012 Super Bowl.

You’ve got to hand it to the company’s advertising agency. To purchase an expensive Super Bowl spot for your client, and still manage to sustain complete and total anonymity on their behalf, is surely a credential to use over and over in future pitch-meetings.

It figures there would be further “S” references at hand. The ad agency responsible was Siltanen & Partners — of El S-s-s-segundo, Calif. Thanks to the creativity of Siltanen, after the Super Bowl spot was broadcast, Suzuki sales actually went down a further five per cent year-over-year, which added to the stunning 74 per cent loss of unit sales that occurred between 2007 and last year.

Funny, then, that the Kizashi, turns out to be an impressive-looking and, evidently, a decent-performing unit, that received generous praise from auto-writers and road-testers (“Slices air in superb comfort,” reports The Gleaner of Kingston, Jamaica), but failed to rise above the morass of Suzuki’s clueless brand image, which epitomized corporate aspirations to low-dull-normalcy.

Sometimes, however, aiming low provides no guarantee that you will exceed expectations. For only days after the announcement that the organization is retreating from the USA, the web site still explains that Kizashi means “something great is coming.”

Sad to say, it isn’t.

Sorry, Suzuki. And sayonara.


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