Is that a Vourdoulakas in the Potting Shed?

Celebrating the unexceptional.

Reasonably priced car in Aarhus, Denmark. Image: the author

Much of what gets recorded is either data with no texture, or the exceptional. In between is where real life happens and it goes by undocumented. Today, an ordinary car on an ordinary street on an ordinary day.

The Suzuki Liana doesn’t strike one as …. well, it doesn’t strike one very much. So anonymous is the Liana that Top Gear used on as for their ‘Star In A Reasonably Priced Car’ feature. The Liana is very much the kind of car I see littering my part of town, and I usually ignore them. But, when I saw this one, I decided I could not resist the voice that told me to

take a few photos and see what came of my attempts to write it up.

2001 Suzuki Liana. Image: the author

I have to (again) apologise for the mediocrity of the images. Still, we see in the Liana a vehicle with an unusual package.  It’s a bit tall but not quite an MPV and not quite an estate or a regular hatchback. Now that I come to think of it, this was Fiat’s formula for the Croma 2, which came out three years after the Liana (or Aerio, as it was known in other markets).

2001 Suzuki Liana. Bad lighting and a not-so-good camera worsened my inherently poor photography. Image: the author

They have a special formula for design at Suzuki, at least for the cars outside Japan. That formula involves indistinctness. The boot has quite a well articulated conceit which is organised around the glass outline and the license plate panel -orderly, you could say. At the side, we might say it was a boring day at Pininfarina where ‘sturdy’ stood alone as the the word on the theme board.  The front graphics could be labelled generic, though I think it could have been saved by the slightest of reworkings of the lamp graphics. I think a few of the radii are causing the noise (top of the headlamps, lower corners of the grille). It’s not as bland as a Croma 2, though. None of this styling matters because that’s not Suzuki’s USP.

2001 Suzuki Liana front (source). It looks rather nice in this photo….

Their USP is user-orientated ease-of-ownership and, most likely, servicing from a network of small garages that have nurtured a good relationship with their customers. Those customers had a blizzard of engines to choose from: nine engines across the markets and across the model years (1.3 to 2.0 via 1.6 and 1.8 and overshooting to 2.3 litres somewhere in the world.)

2001 Suzuki Liana interior (source)

Ordinary, yes. Vague, sort of. Sexy? No, not even in a readers’ wives kind of way. Yet these cars are still on the road and in use. Suzuki has a knack of making what appear to be underwhelming cars that go on to endure in a way Renaults, for example, don’t. There’s no question that Renault has had gigabytes of brain power applied to ensure Renault design makes sense. It was so carefully considered (until Le Quement left). They don’t last past eight years though.  Suzukis soldier on. What is the secret?

Suzuki, as far as I know, might have had nobody acting as head-of-design, to judge by the wholly inconsistent and randomly changing styles down the years. Yet whatever they do works. It’s a bit like the story some provocateurs like to tell about the lack of government in Italy not harming the country (untrue on every level), arguing that a lack of strategy can be a strategy.

The big S does have a strategy. Each Suzuki model gets the kind of design it needs, rather as if Suzuki sees each car as an individual and not part of a set of clones. This would not work for some other brands. For Suzuki, I think it’s devastatingly intelligent: why trip yourself up on homogeneity when the brand serves such peculiarly niche niches?

Now that I have considered the Liana, I realise that its goodness is non-obvious and I think this is becuase Suzuki treats its customers as intelligent people. They don’t need their one car to have a family resemblance to the other cars they didn’t buy. They don’t worry about Suzuki’s past. They want a car for them, for now, and they want it to work and to last.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

23 thoughts on “Is that a Vourdoulakas in the Potting Shed?”

  1. Interesting point that Suzuki develops and styles each car in their lineup as a separate entity; too many manufacturers paint themselves into a corner styling-wise by stubbornly adhering to whatever design elements are deemed essential indicators for the recognition (“the family face”) of their brand. The first generation Porsche Cayenne would be a prime example of what can happen in that case.

    1. “too many manufacturers paint themselves into a corner styling-wise by stubbornly adhering to whatever design elements are deemed essential indicators for the recognition (“the family face”) of their brand”

      Reading this lines I instantly recalled the Ford Fiesta with the Aston Martin-esque Grille:

      Ridiculous. That grilles does NOT work in a car so small.

  2. Good morning, Richard. Ah, Suzuki. The brand only has a market share of 1,8% or there about in the Netherlands. I can’t recall I’ve seen a Liana lately, but it is one of those car that is like you said ordinary, is completely under the radar, but still good.

    I found 62 Lianas for sale here, ranging from € 400 to € 4k. I would leave the cheapest one alone (the seller is infamous) but there are good ones to be had for not that much cush.

    There are a couple of Ignisses (Igni, Ignes, I wonder what the plural is of Ignis) around here as well as two Swifts. I have a soft spot for the Swift and it is one of those cars that should sell in higher numbers I think. But what do I know, I like Japanese architecture, Japenese foods, my girlfriend lives in Tokyo, I might be biased 😉

    1. Freerk – Your mention of Suzuki’s Netherlands market share had me checking carsalesbase. NL could be a bellwether going by that percentage. In 2021 Europe sales were 190,904; 1.62% of the market. Or to apply another metric, over
      2.6 times what Honda managed.

      That last comparison is like saying somebody’s a lot livelier than a corpse, but Suzuki have put their traditional cross-town rival to utter and deserved shame. What’s interesting is that Suzuki’s European sales have been very consistent from 1997 to present; never below 1.0%, best ever was 2007[1] with 285,571 and 1.82%. The count is somewhat muddied by production and sales of Suzukis sold as Opels, Vauxhalls Subarus, and Santanas, and probably less so by the 7664 Swaces and 3857 Acrosses sold from 2020 to November 2021[2]

      The sales numbers reflect creditably on the company. No ambitions for market domination – they nailed that one with Maruti Udyog in India – but consistency which suggests a trusted brand with a loyal following.

      [1] Production of the well-regarded and heavily marketed in full swing at Esztergom, and a peak year for European car sales.
      [2] Rebadged hybrid Toyota Corolla wagons and RAV-4s. Still available – no figures yet available for December 2021 on.

  3. Good morning Richard. That is a fascinating and thought-provoking analysis of the rationale behind Suzuki’s design. I really like the idea that each vehicle is designed on it’s own terms and is not saddled with an overarching marque styling theme. It is, as you contend, an intelligent approach that also respects the intelligence of the customer.

    At the other end of the spectrum, you have Mercedes-Benz, where its C, E and S-Class saloons are virtual clones of each other, the same sausage in three different lengths. Are C-Class sales boosted by this strategy, because drivers believe their car could readily be mistaken for its larger and more prestigious siblings? Probably, I suppose.

    1. Good afternoon Daniel
      To answer your question – “Are C-Class sales boosted by this strategy, because drivers believe their car could readily be mistaken for its larger and more prestigious siblings? Probably, I suppose.” Certainly not by me. Perfectly happy with my W204 C250 CGI saloon thanks. Does exactly what I need and having spent some money on it a while back I shall keep it until either I, or it ,packs up! 😉

    2. Good evening Mike. Ah yes, but the w204 had a more distinctive appearance and was better looking than either of its contemporary bigger siblings. It was also the last C-Class that was available in the UK with a proper Mercedes-Benz saloon car grille (and the last C-Class I liked!)

      Here’s a nice unmolested example:

  4. There is a lot to be said for anonymous cars, provided that they are properly screwed (stuck?) together and totally reliable; something at which Suzuki seem to be very good. SWMBO had a Wagon R some years ago (the second generation model) which performed impeccably but attracted no attention whatsoever from other road users. It was possible to make indecently rapid progress through traffic-clogged urban areas without getting hooted at and could be parked anywhere safe in the knowledge that no joyrider would give it a second glance and that every vandal would consider it beneath their dignity to modify. But most of all, it simly did exactly what it was supposed to and was never a chore to use.

  5. When I first saw it, I thought ‘Ah, yes – the Nissan Almera Tino’, but this is more angular / has a more cropped rear; in fact, it resembles one of the cars which has its tail lights in the rear hatch and extra ones in the boot opening so that they can be seen when the rear door is open.

    The feature lines above the rear arches are interesting – presumably they take height / weight out of the rear’s appearance. I think it would look a lot better in a cheerier colour, though.

    I’ve only just learned that ‘Liana’ stands for ‘Life In A New Age’.

  6. An interesting article Richard. Before I purchased a succession of Mercedes and a couple of BMW’s we had a couple of Fiat Puntos. Similar type of car to the Suzuki imho and none the worse for that. Cheap to service, went pretty well in an urban environment and enjoyable to drive.

  7. For some brands vertical affinity works well. Suzuki have figured it´s not for them and it suits them. The cars (especially in the period before 2015) had similar dimension so visual variety matched. For Mercedes, say, with three saloons with markedly different size vertical affinity is good at tying things together and building on general brand values.

  8. There’s a four door, too, which is actually the bodystyle I’m more familiar with. In this format the resemblance between the Liana and the Tino seems even more pronounced. For some reason my browser isn’t letting me paste a link to a sample image in here today, but it’s easily Google-able…

    1. The 4-door is still visible in Ireland. The five-door may technically be an estate if you consider the 4 door the standard. I don´t – that´s because the estatiness is not that clear and the 4 door looks like it was spun off the 5 door.
      It´s missing a rear centre arm-rest though.

  9. I always thought this was a Liana estate – it only recently occurred to me that it might be a hatchback (most Lianas I’ve seen have been the saloon version).
    I always thought Suzuki could have done better with this model , I too am a fan of the Swift and would choose one if I ever needed to buy a small car.

    1. I’d forgotten the Liana saloon. Oh, dear, it’s a bit frumpy, especially from this angle:

      It looks a bit tall and narrow, and those side skirts just add to that impression. The estate/hatch us rather more interesting and pleasing, I think.

    1. It does look much better with flared wheel-arches, even desirable.

  10. This is the kind of car my father (he is 76) would buy. Does it start in the morning? check. Runs, stops and steers? check. Air conditioning works? Sold!
    His last car was a Kia Carens II 1.6. “Appalling” would be a nice way to describe that. And my father was delighted with it. Until a camshaft seized and the timing went kaput, that is.

  11. This piece and comments got me thinking about whether there are any European or US equivalents to Suzuki. Škoda used to fulfil a similar brief, but rather less so now, as its models are increasingly clones of its VW Group stablemates. Dacia probably comes closest today, although Suzukis are not sold on cheap entry prices.

    There’s currently nothing remotely similar in the US, but Saturn’s original brief was to offer ‘cars as domestic appliances’ and it’s not difficult to imagine a scaled-up Liana as a Saturn.

    In any event, one hopes that Suzuki continues to offer its pleasingly different cars to enliven the automotive landscape.

    1. There is! of sorts, certainly Mitsubishi attracts this type of ‘lowest-common denominator’ customer who just wants something with a warranty for cheap, but comparing Mitsubishi reliability with Suzuki is unfair at best. Still, I don’t think you’ll find another brand still selling cars in America whose primary USP is being inexpensive and Japanese. I recall reading a book written in the early 2000s about the US car market with a chapter on the Korean twins (H/K) and at that time they were positing themselves as the perfect, ‘no-fuss’ automobile for the cost-conscious nonenthusiast. Nowadays I’d guess that mentality is gone and they’re much more focused on exporting their Korean flavor of automaking to the world. However, their small (B-seg) sedans (Accent, Rio) still fill much of the basic transport roles that Suzuki otherwise might in different markets, and Nissan absolutely makes a killing selling its Versa sedan in the same segment. It is interesting to note that unlike EU markets, American cheap cars are almost entirely sedans these days mimicking more Latin American/East Asian tastes where the B-segment sedan reigns supreme with pillars like the Honda City and Toyota Etios.

  12. It’s certainly good that a firm like Suzuki exists, and one which appears happy to retain partnerships with small dealers in some cases. (Although my nearest is in a shared site, along with Fiat/Abarth, Seat, Cupra, MG and now appears to have added Alfa Romeo and Jeep after their separate franchise closed!).

    They also seem to have been the only one of the Japanese firms to offer a 4WD option on most vehicles to customers other than those based in Japan. From Autotrader, about 4% of used Swift available are 4WD, and about 12% of Ignis.

    Suzuki persisted with small saloons in the UK for longer than many: as well as the Liana (as seen in Top Gear), the Baleno (as seen in Breaking Bad) and SX4 were offered in booted form. The SX4, aka the Fiat Sedici, was rumoured to be the basis of a Lancia Pangea but the project was cancelled.

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