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What Ever Happened to the Suzuki Samurai?

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author photo by Aaron Gold October 2016

If you're old enough to remember when President Reagan was in office, you're probably old enough to remember the Suzuki Samurai jokes. "Hey, did you hear about the new Samurai? It has a sunroof... on the floor!"

Suzuki's useful little 4-wheel-drive utility came to the United States in 1985. It was cute, cheap and capable off-road -- capable enough to pose a serious challenge to the Jeep Wrangler, compared to which it was significantly cheaper. But the Samurai's American dream all but came to an end in 1988, thanks largely to Consumer Reports. A staffer for the magazine had rolled a Samurai in real-world driving, and Consumer Reports modified its accident-avoidance tests to try to reproduce the behavior, this time with outriggers fitted to keep the Samurai from going shiny-side-down. Sure enough, the Samurai tried to turn over. Consumer Reports published dramatic photos and videos of the Suzuki tipping up onto the outriggers, and by late 1988, sales had plummeted by 70 percent compared to a year earlier.

In 1996, Suzuki sued Consumers Union (the parent company for Consumer Reports) for $60 million, citing the magazine's conclusion that the Samurai "easily rolls over in turns." The lawsuit dragged on for nearly a decade before settling out of court. No money changed hands (except what was paid to the lawyers), but Consumer Reports conceded that they may have used the word "easily" a little too easily.

Ironically, the accusations hit just as Suzuki was introducing a newer and more stable utility called the Sidekick, which was also sold by GM as the Geo Tracker. The Sidekick was bigger, more powerful and more stable than the Samurai, though not as capable off-road. Amazingly, Suzuki kept the Samurai on the U.S. market until 1995, but it found few takers.

It's only recently that people have come to appreciate what a great off-roader the Samurai is. With a little modification -- or even without it -- the Samurai's small size and simple 4-wheel-drive system will get it just about anywhere its owners have the stomach to go. No doubt there are many folks now who wish more people had nabbed a new Samurai while they had the chance.

Although the Samurai is dead to the U.S. market, it lives on elsewhere in the world under names such as the Sierra, the Katana and the Jimny. Because Suzuki pulled the Samurai from the States in 1995, we missed out on the vehicle's first major update, including coil springs and a better interior. Suzuki still makes the Jimny to this day -- and while the current version dates from 1998, it's still a tough-as-nails mini off-roader. You can buy one in Japan, Australia and South America... but not here.

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What Ever Happened to the Suzuki Samurai? - Autotrader