Curbside Classic: Suzuki X-90 – Barbie Would Drive One Of These

(first posted 10/7/2011)   The weather is way too beautiful in North Georgia to stay inside these days. Even if I have no particular place to go, I will go there anyway just to spot cars. My lack of focus was rewarded today when I spotted a rare and exotic bird indeed: A local glass shop owner (who is a confirmed Suzuki Man) had parked his pride and joy X-90 out front in place of his normal Samurai. This happily coincided with me having my trusty Kodak at the ready. He was pleasant and friendly, and the car itself had some stories to tell (just like it promises in the banner up above).

Suzuki has always been the crazy aunt in the basement of the American car market. Its quirky little cars just never seem to catch on. Ideas that on paper seem novel and interesting just never seem to make it to the showroom floor as a coherent, must- have design. The X-90 is exhibit A of this phenomenon. When Suzuki launched its Samurai line in 1985, it put one of Japan’s most respected motorcycle manufacturers in the car biz here in the states for the first time. Now, 26 years later, Suzuki is still trying to find its first “top 10” sales hit.

The X-90 was one of the lesser lights in the struggle to win the hearts and  minds of the American car buyer. Available for just three seasons (1996-1998) the X-90 was the spiritual lineal successor to the Samurai and replaced it in the lineup late in 1995. With rounded curves, a larger engine and all around refinement over the Sammy, the X-90 looked like it might reach a more affluent, urbanized buyer that would never consider the Samurai, which was renowned for its choppy ride, crude road manners and all around rough demeanor.

But as has happened so many times when the Japanese try to read the American mind from across the Pacific, the result was a disaster. Buyers didn’t know what to make of a two seat T-topped, SUV/ Car that looked like something Barbie and Ken would drive. Lots of potential owners wondered if it was a “real” SUV that could go off road. Lots more buyers wondered if an economy car with such a high center of gravity and cramped cabin made any sense. Thus the X-90 went to market with a confused assignment and Suzuki didn’t do much to define the cars mission. Some ads from the day portrayed the little Suzu as a junior yuppie mobile that could handle the nine to five and then play hard on weekends.

Later,  there was the appeal to the kind of buyer that wouldn’t be caught dead in an SUV…

The result was a car that generated more giggles than sales. Just over 4600 units shipped in its debut year – And that was high tide. Sales dropped by half in 1997 and slowed to a trickle when Suzuki pulled the plug at the end of 1998.

What buyers got for the $14,599 MSRP was a rough 1.6 liter four that bashed boulders in a very subtle way with just 95 horsepower. A five speed manual and four speed slushbox were the drivetrain combos for all three years. Both FWD and four wheel drive were available, but anybody driving one of these where four wheel drive is essential needs a good talking to. Like everything else about the X-90, fuel economy was middling-real world owners reported low 30’s mileage in a vehicle that was shorter than a Mazda Miata.

Finding an X-90 today is tough, but not impossible. The owner of our subject car has accounted for a goodly portion of overall production. George says that he has owned five X-90’s and that they are fun and dependable, with limited off road abilities.  In ice and snow… well, it doesn’t snow much in Dalton Georgia, but he says that when it does, the X-90 is more of a liability than an asset. His advice if you are looking to squirrel one away- Watch out for underside rust and if equipped with four wheel drive, take it to a mechanic before purchase. Suzuki dealers are a vanishing breed and he has to order parts from Alabama’s only dealer to keep his on the road.

The X-90 was never going to be taken seriously by anyone that was looking at a Jeep Cherokee or Wrangler, and with its short wheelbase, the ride was punitive on long trips. So it finally dawned on the brass at Suzuki that American buyers wanted more room, more power and more refinement in their 4X4′s, thus the X-90 got the boot and the company began emphasizing the Sidekick (which was mechanically the same under the skin) and later, the Grand Vitara. The roly-poly little X-90 was soon forgotten.