Suzuki is preparing to introduce two new sport utility vehicles in the next couple of years as part of a plan to increase market share in the United States.


According to Associated Press (AP), Suzuki last year launched an ambitious plan to triple US sales by 2007 and the cornerstone is nine new models, the latest of which was unveiled last week at the New York International Auto Show.


The compact [GM-Daewoo built] Forenza Wagon joins the Verona midsize sedan, Forenza premium compact sedan and Reno five-door crossover vehicle in the beefed-up lineup, the report said, adding that the wagon will compete against models such as the Ford Focus wagon and is scheduled to go on sale late this year priced between $13,000 and $16,000.


“Not only does the Forenza Wagon enable Suzuki to compete in the growing premium compact wagon segment, but it allows us to directly leverage the popularity of the fast-selling Forenza sedan,” Koichi Suzuki, president of automotive operations at Suzuki’s American arm, said, according to AP.


The new introductions to date leave five more models to come by 2007. In an interview with Associated Press, Koichi Suzuki said the upcoming offerings will include a small and mid-size SUV, which will help the Japanese carmaker compete with its larger rivals.


Citing Autodata Corp. AP said that, last year, Suzuki sold 58,438 vehicles in the United States, ranking it ninth and ahead of only American Isuzu Motors among the major Asian brands.


But AP noted that Suzuki, 20% owned by General Motors, hopes to reach 200,000 US sales by 2007, which would place it near Mitsubishi, Mazda and KIA in terms of annual sales, though still nowhere near Asian leaders Toyota, Honda and Nissan.


Sales to the end of March were up 23.5% from a year ago, contributing to a 9.5% jump among all Asian brands, AP said, again citing Autodata figures.


Koichi Suzuki reportedly said a more varied portfolio has been the key.


“The new models help, but you need a wider range of products,” he told AP, adding: “That helps dealers get customers in their showrooms.”


Power Information Network analyst Tom Libby reportedly said Suzuki’s sales target is attainable, but the carmaker faces a number of challenges.


Topping the list, Libby told AP, is a record of poor showings in industry rankings for initial and long-term quality and customer satisfaction.


The news agency said that, in JD Power’s closely watched study of initial quality in 2003 models, Suzuki was the most-improved brand, bettering its score by 31% but, with an average of 144 problems per 100 vehicles, it still fared far worse than the industry average of 133 problems per 100 vehicles.


AP also noted that Suzuki finished dead last in JD Power’s 2003 Sales Satisfaction Index Study, which measures customer satisfaction with the purchase or leasing experience.


“They can reach their goals, and they’re going in the right direction, but they have a ways to go,” Libby reportedly said.


According to Associated Press, Koichi Suzuki acknowledged the quality problems and said the carmaker was emphasising better reliability while also looking to help dealers improve operations and enhance the buying experience.


AP said Suzuki hopes to increase the number of its US dealers from 500 to 600 in the next year or so while Koichi Suzuki reportedly said the goal is to boost the number of stand-alone businesses, as opposed to those that sell more than the Suzuki brand.


“Right now it’s 40% exclusive dealers and 60% otherwise,” he told Associated Press, adding: “I’d like that percentage to flip-flop.”