A few COAL’s ago I related the story of my trip to the local Chevrolet establishment circa 1981 where I was subjected to a salesperson’s harangue on the evils of (Japanese) sh*tboxes. That screed, together with a thinly veiled personal insult, drove me from that dealer’s door permanently while raising questions in my mind about a sales strategy that, looking forward, just might have had some actual limitations.
Fast forward a mere seven years, when that same dealership would now be selling on a daily basis sh*boxes assembled by not one, but three (Japanese) manufacturers: how do you like them apples? If evidence is required of a world in transition, you could do worse than cite my Heartbeat of America experience as exhibit number one. I often wonder if my benighted salesman was still on the employment rolls at ***** Chevrolet in 1989, and how (or if) he had adjusted to the brave new world instituted by his GM corporate overlords.
1981, the year of my General Motors epiphany, was marked by the ascendancy of Roger Smith to the helm of the storied company. GM had recently posted its first annual loss since the ’20’s, while navigating a plethora of problems including diminished market share, labor issues, abysmal quality control, and engineering disasters, not to mention lawsuits. Granted, it wasn’t the most opportune moment to take the reins of a lumbering leviathan of conflicting and conflicted interests, plus warring divisions and engineering fiefdoms whose reputations had been blackened and eyebrows singed by the exploding cigars of underbaked projects like the Vega and X-Cars. Faced with this plateful of disasters our man Mr. Smith soon demonstrated that perhaps he wasn’t the best man for the job.
Certainly the trials and tribulations the Chairman faced would have challenged and ultimately broken many old school American automotive executives. Faced with chaos, Smith responded by throwing a great many projects against the wall to see what would stick. These included the Saturn Division, the Aurora and Northstar boondoggles, the purchase of Electronic Data Systems and Hughes Aircraft Company(!), and the subject of this story, Geo, a semi-autonomous zone of the once indomitable Chevrolet Division.
The ultimate expression of the If-You-Can’t-Beat-‘Em-Join-‘Em philosophy, Geo came together in 1989 when deals were struck with Toyota, Suzuki, and Isuzu, respectively, to provide a variety of cars that would have a new badge applied on front and back and be sold as Geos. After sweating blood and treasure to produce a series of so-called game changing small cars starting with the Corvair and extending through the Vega, Chevette, and J-Cars, GM finally threw in the towel and hired someone else rather than go back to the drawing board once again. The fact that the General had plenty of perfectly acceptable small cars being screwed together by its overseas divisions across the globe and chose not to certify and ship them to the U.S. may seem puzzling, but many of Smith’s decisions seem odd in retrospect.
I became involved in this mess by way of the usual scenario: I had a failing set of wheels in the household and was looking for something cheap and preferably reliable to take its place. The vehicle in question was a ’76 Toyota Corolla that we had purchased (very) used from an . . . acquaintance. I was going to say friend, but perhaps a friend would not have sold us the Corolla. On the surface, it seemed like a rational decision as the car was clean, straight, and reputedly trouble free over the course of its lifetime. Its purpose in life once consigned to us was straightforward–it was meant to be an urban runabout as we had the Plymouth Reliant and later the Ford Aerostar as designated automotive jack-of-all-trades.
Our experience with our old Starlet (RIP) had given us no reason to doubt the general consensus concerning Toyotas in general, i.e. they may not dazzle but they wouldn’t let you down in the middle of a Puget Sound monsoon. The Starlet had proved to be bulletproof . . . not literally, and certainly not to the point of deflecting a charging Mustang GT, but maintenance-wise, it never required more than oil changes. The Corolla, on the other hand, soon began to defy conventional wisdom, and following the precedent set by my mid-60’s Teisco del Rey guitar, refused to stay in tune. Sad to say, its distributor seemed to have acquired a mind of its own. The mechanic at the local dealer would send it home with a clean bill of health and two weeks later I’d be out in the middle of a February rainstorm with a timing light attempting to get it to shape up and fly right. After a few rinse-and-repeat dealer quests, I gave up and just kept the timing light in the trunk for future application.
This scenario may have been amusing for awhile, but eventually it grew tiresome and we decided to look elsewhere for an urban gofer. Economics dictated a used heap, er, previously-owned vehicle, so for a few weeks I collected the local Auto Traders looking for something that might fit the bill. Eventually, my eyes lit on a silver 1990 Geo Metro five door for sale at a used car emporium on Aurora and so off I drove in the Toyota, hoping the it might hold its tune for another six or seven miles. The prospect in question seemed serviceable; like the Corolla, it was straight and there were no signs of abuse with less than 40,000 miles on the odometer. Negotiations ensued. The dealer, perhaps inspired by the Toyota mythos and a set of very nice sheepskin seat covers (which I hated) on the front seats of the Corolla, gave me a reasonable offer and the deal was quickly done.
By this time, we had advanced into the mid-90’s. The Metro had already been around for since ’89, and its predecessor, the Chevy Sprint for a few years before that. The little box had a well-earned reputation as a fuel miser, which certainly attracted me, but I also had liked the looks of the thing since its introduction, given its clean, futuristic, lines. It certainly didn’t look like it had issued forth from any known GM styling studio as neither a vinyl roof nor opera windows or lights were available even as options. Added to that stroke of fortune, as related elsewhere I’d already owned a Suzuki 400 motorcycle, so Metro ownership was like re-joining the family. Given those factors and my native predilection for wee foreign cars, perhaps the tiny Geo and I were fated to come together. The only fly in the ointment was the automatic transmission installed in the Metro in question, but I shrugged it off as we had teenagers in the house that would be learning to drive and I figured at least we wouldn’t be paying for clutch jobs.
I know what you’re thinking . . . a three speed automatic paired with a 49 horsepower 1.0 liter three cylinder? Hey, three speeds and three cylinders matched, at least in quantity. And after all, three speeds were one more than a Chevy Powerglide. A test drive had proven that the little Geo/Suzuki could get out of its own way, amazingly enough. And at least it revved past 3500 rpm, something the Corolla had been loath to do. Plus, there was the question of fuel economy: I thought the needle on the fuel gauge was never going to move during the first days of ownership. When it finally did budge, it proved to progress in very small increments indeed, yielding mileage in the mid 40’s on a consistent basis. As a bonus, I didn’t have to carry a timing light in the trunk.
The Metro actually came with a few creature comforts, including air conditioning and a stereo. The air option proved to be a nice bonus so long as you remembered to turn it off when attempting to merge onto the freeway, and god forbid that you push the A/C button when attempting to negotiate one of downtown Seattle’s infamous hills as roughly half the available horsepower were required to turn the A/C compressor. As if to offset that quirk, there was serviceable room front and back for driver and passengers, plus with five doors all seats and the boot were easily accessible. The space behind the hatch was a bit of a joke, but I didn’t need the Geo to carry two by fours or bags of cement, especially after acquiring the Aerostar. And the handling! The Metro proved to be extremely tossable, very much a point a shoot operation. At 1600 pounds, there was very little mass to shift and though there was not much of a contact patch given its 145/80 12 inch tires, if you started to lose grip a bit you could take consolation in the knowledge that replacing those tires would require only about twenty bucks a pop once tread wear became an issue.
In many ways the Metro proved to be an updated replacement for the old Starlet of sainted memory, except it was more handy, had four doors, cloth upholstery, and was actually stylish. Of course there were plenty of detractors who still retained the (Japanese) sh*tbox mentality of ye olde Chevy salesman, making fun of its size and . . . what else? The gas mileage? Its seating for four? Its ease of parking? Its sturdy mechanicals? Its FWD grip in the rain? As stated before in this space, there is a certain virtue in driving a car whose total performance you can use on a daily basis. What do those drivers do with their 700+ horsepower beasties whose entire performance envelope is available only on a dedicated racetrack where there remains a high possibility that the damned thing is going to kill you? There’s something to be said for pedal-to-the-metal forty horsepower zipsters that are very unlikely to get you into trouble even if you are trying.
In summary, I grew fond of the little Geo née Suzuki once I adjusted my driving style to take advantage of its virtues. As a bonus the kids learned to drive in it and what car could possibly be easier for passing a driving test? It was so compact and easy to see out of you could parallel park it without hardly trying. You couldn’t go fast enough to merit a speeding ticket and once you passed the driver’s test and had your license you didn’t have to spend all the proceeds from your first after-school job filling up the gas tank. The downside, of course, was that you most assuredly didn’t want to get in an accident with it, but then in our hands it really was pretty much limited to a low speed, in-town role with accompanying low speeds, save when I was commuting.
Given the old saw that all good things must come to an end, eventually the little Geo went the way of all flesh. Sometime after the 100,000 mile mark it began to guzzle more oil than gasoline and we faced an imminent engine rebuild. The time had come to move on to greener pastures, but we said farewell to the Metro with some regret, especially when it came time to visit the gas station. However, it came to be replaced with another fuel-sipper, although one that would never reach forty miles per gallon on a regular basis. But more on that anon.
It may be common knowledge that Suzuki sold the Metro under its own aegis in the USA as the Swift, including an actual hold-my-beer four cylinder 1.3 liter DOHC 16 valve 101 horsepower GTI version. You actually may have been able to get in trouble with that version but, sadly, Suzuki’s focus soon shifted to the nascent SUV market and run of the mill cars became more of an afterthought. For whatever reason, but mostly related to the fact that its forte was, and is, small cars and trucks, Suzuki always struggled in the U.S. market, finally throwing in the towel sometime during 2012.
Coincidentally, the following year we took a trip to the Antipodes to visit our son, who by virtue of marrying an Australian citizen had taken up residence in south Australia. In the midst of our Southern Hemisphere odyssey we flew to New Zealand’s South Island in order to see firsthand for ourselves the Southern Alps and try our hand at some of the notable tracks, or hiking trails as we Yanks are inclined to call them. We flew into Christchurch, and at the car rental counter, by luck of the draw, we were handed the keys to a newish Suzuki Swift, resplendent in a coppery red. I can’t say I checked in detail at the time, but odds are it would have been equipped with either a 1.2 or 1.3 liter DOHC 16 valve four (shades of the old GTI), plus a six-speed automatic, an important detail as I had enough on my plate adapting to my new task of driving on the left side of the road. Also, in another note, defying all convention I checked the box for comprehensive insurance given that I was faced with piloting an unfamiliar car in a foreign land with vehicles driving on the wrong side of the street. This proved to be a wise decision.
Fortunately, at least for me, all the byways we faced once we left the immediate environs of Christchurch, were two lane country roads, well marked and maintained, which eased the transition. Once I’d fixed in my mind that I simply needed to keep the road’s center line next to my right rather than left elbow, I got along swell. We set a course south by southeast toward Queenstown, our ultimate goal for the day being Te Anau, where we spent the night across the street from its majestic namesake lake. The following day we took the sometimes frightening road to Milford Sound, stopping along the way to hike some of the tracks not far removed from the highway, and then capped the day by catching a boat to capture the sights of the Sound itself, including, to our collective astonishment, a gray whale just off port bow. Should any Kiwis be reading this, your country is magnificent, and I would move there in an heartbeat if not for the logistics of shipping my guitars all that way.
Of course the question we are all waiting for is: what was the brand spanking new Suzuki Swift like to drive, particularly in reference to that earlier Swift/Metro in which I’d spent years of my commuting life?
The answer is, it was grand. Much progress had been made in the course of a decade and a half. Truth be told, the new Swift may have moved up a size in the ensuing years; it was certainly a good bit larger than the old Metro, if not as large as the hatchback I was most familiar with, a Mazda 3. The Suzuki’s engine was also only half as big as the Mazda’s, so you would expect a large power deficit, but given its more compact footprint and weight, the difference was not so noticeable as you might think. All in all, the Swift was comfortable, secure, a great handler, and a spritely partner for the challenging roads of the mountainous South Island.
Our one moment of vexation occurred as we circled our way around the southernmost tip of the island and headed up the west coast toward Dunedin. You recall that I ticked the box for comprehensive insurance? Good thing, as a grapefruit sized rock came off a dump truck and hit the Swift square in the windshield. Of all the many dozens of rental cars I’ve driven in my life, this was my sole instance of suffering anything like reportable damaged and it was the only occasion when I had relied on something other than my own auto insurance in the event of disaster. Sometimes Karma works in your favor.
We dropped the smitten Suzuki off at the agency in Christchurch, pointing out the damage while referring to our insurance policy with the starred category listing glass damage coverage. The agent noted the cracked and scarred windshield on his form, shook my hand, and we were off to Melbourne with overall fond memories of our old Metro’s red and copper-headed stepchild, which had grown up to be a capable and memorable addition to the Suzuki family tree.
I would end our story there if not for an even more recent encounter with a veritable contemporary Suzuki, although in this instance I didn’t have the good fortune to drive it.
On a recent trip to hike the Austrian Alps and Italian Dolomites, as is our custom we took note of all the new machinery that, given our national proclivities, we are denied in the United States. These included various Citroëns, Fiats, Opels, and . . . Suzukis. One class conspicuous by its absence in the Home of the Brave is the shoebox SUV (pronounced ‘SOOV’ in Italy). Most of the world seems in fact to have been overtaken by the same SUV virus that is virulent in the USA, the only difference being that it draws the limit at Cadillac Escalades the size of two bedroom ranch houses in the suburbs. Subsequently, many pint-sized utility vehicles roam the streets, many of them interesting and desirable, particularly when I think how useful they would be on Pacific Northwest Forest Service roads where they could handily dodge the potholes that are legion and often three feet deep.
Interestingly enough, the little Suzuki Ignis is one of the pocket SUV’s most represented, at least on the narrow and winding roads of the Tyrol. I found myself attracted once again to a tiny Suzuki, with the caveat that any dream of owning the little critter would be immediately crushed by the prospect of having to wait the requisite twenty-one years before I could import one and by then all cars will be electric anyway, and I will likely be hiking that great track in the sky. All the same, it’s comforting to know that Suzuki (including the current fourth generation Swift) still flourishes in other markets and appears to be going from strength to strength in those locales where its relatively small size is still considered a net positive.
Forza, Suzuki! Long may it wave.