“Who put a Suzuki badge on a… wait… what is that truck?” OK, I admit that I’d completely forgotten that Suzuki once sold a pickup in the US, but that’s easy to forget, since Suzuki built under 8,000 of them over four years. While American Suzuki Motor Corporation may be best remembered for rebadged Daewoos or the capable but unloved subcompact SX4, the oddest story of Suzuki’s US experience may be this vehicle: a rebadged Nissan Frontier sold from 2009 to 2012.
Suzuki began selling cars in the US in 1986 with the Samurai mini-SUV, eventually branching out into less distinctive, but more mainstream vehicles. However, the company’s US operation was plagued with difficulties – such as the dwindling demand for subcompact cars (Suzuki’s specialty), and a poor reputation for quality. Faced with a tiny market share that was shrinking further and a product line that lacked excitement, Suzuki tried added another ingredient to perk up US sales… a pickup. For this, Suzuki didn’t look to what would seem its most logical partner, GM (which then owned 20% of Suzuki)… but rather to Nissan.
The resulting Suzuki Equator wound up being a lightly disguised Nissan Frontier – which was fine with Suzuki because they needed two things in showrooms quickly: A pickup, and a vehicle with good reliability ratings. With a Frontier, they’d get both. Incidentally, Nissan and Suzuki did not have a financial stake in each other’s company – the Equator is an odd example of badge engineering between companies that are not closely affiliated with each other.
Equators were built alongside Frontiers at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee factory and debuted as 2009 models. Suzuki’s North American marketing budget was rather small, so to get the most bang for its buck, the company decided to market the Equator heavily to its existing motorcycle and ATV customers. This strategy made some sense, as during the late aughts, Suzuki sold ten times more bikes and off-road vehicles in the US than cars. Plus, Suzuki’s brand was more respected by that cohort of customers than by the general public (Suzuki ranked 32nd of 36 nameplates in JD Power’s 2008 Initial Quality Rankings).
As American Suzuki Motor’s Vice President of Marketing said at the Equator’s introduction:
In the United States, Suzuki is best known for motorcycles, and there is a powerful connection between motorcycle owners and the truck market. These people are 50% more likely to have a truck, and in many cases, their lifestyle demands a truck.
Hence, the Suzuki pickup was born.
I first noticed this Equator head-on, and from that angle, Suzuki’s revised front end looked different enough from the Frontier that I was perplexed. Equator has a prominent grille, a redesigned hood with a subtle power bulge, a different front bumper, and roundish headlights. It’s an effective redesign of the Frontier’s front clip, and it’s surprising that Nissan itself didn’t come up with a design like this sometime in the Frontier’s long life. But this is about where the differences end – from the windshield back, an Equator is 99% Frontier.
Here we see a more familiar profile – the Frontier was already four years old when the Equator debuted, and every customer knew exactly what this was. Like Frontiers, Equators were available in extended or crew cabs in a variety of trim levels. Power came from Nissan engines – a 2.5-liter four standard on the lower-trim extended cabs, and the 261-hp 4-liter V-6 for upper trims, and for all extended cabs.
This example is a top-line RMZ-4 – if the nomenclature sounds familiar, it may be because Suzuki evoked the name of its RM-Z series of off-road motorcycles. Equivalent to the Frontier PRO-4X, this top-line Suzuki offered Bilstein shocks, beefy 16” tires (though our featured truck has aftermarket 17-inchers), skid plates, an electronic locking rear differential, and a few added interior features and exterior embellishments.
For sharp-eyed carspotters, the Equator’s tailgate reveals a subtle difference from the Frontier – a differently-shaped plastic handle surround… it’s smaller than the extended trapezoid found on Frontiers, and can be an effective way to spot an Equator from the rear. Ordinarily, tailgate handles are worth mentioning, but this is, in fact, the Equator’s most noticeable modification in the rear three-quarters of its body.
In the cab, the story was much the same – aside from the steering wheel hub, this was identical to a Frontier. Even the optional Rockford Fosgate sound system and the GPS touchscreen were shared with Frontiers.
Inside the bed, upper-level Equators like this RMZ-4 did feature a noteworthy accessory… a series of channels and movable cleats for the purpose of securing motorbikes.
Oddly enough, the most compelling reasons to choose a Suzuki over its near-twin Nissan had nothing to do with the truck itself, but rather with finances. The Equator listed for less than a Frontier… from a few hundred to over $1,000 for fully-equipped models. Plus, Suzuki provided customers with what it called “America’s #1 Warranty,” which included a fully-transferable, no-deductible 100,000-mi./7-year powertrain coverage – more generous than Nissan’s warranty, though that was of little consolation after Suzuki exited the US market.
Suzuki never expected this truck to overtake F-150s in popularity – in fact, prior to launch the company merely said they expected to sell “up to a few thousand” per year. That they did. Over four years, Suzuki averaged about 2,000 US Equator sales per year. Between 2009 and 2012, about 8,200 Equators were sold in the US – less than 5% of the 179,000 Nissan Frontiers sold over the same period.
During its two-and-a-half decades in the US, Suzuki became somewhat known for rebadging other company’s vehicles, but the Equator was Suzuki’s last frontier in this regard. When American Suzuki Motor Corp. declared bankruptcy in November 2012, the Equator, like most Suzukis, quietly slipped out of most people’s memories, including mine.
If you’re like me, and feel that it’s nice to be surprised by an obscure re-badge of an otherwise common vehicle, then keep your eyes skinned for what looks like a Nissan Frontier with odd headlights, a big grille, and different tailgate handle. It just may be a long-forgotten Equator.
Photographed in Shenandoah County, Virginia in April 2021.