SUZUKI SAYS it will surpass sport-utility market leader Land Rover in unit sales next year.
In 1997, Suzuki sold 46,100 sport-utilities to Rover's 47,500. New products this year will raise sales to about 70,000 each.
'If Suzuki does not overtake Land Rover this year, we believe we shall go ahead next year,' said Yoshihiko Kakei, managing director of Suzuki GB plc. 'Sales projections from JATO endorse this trend.'
Suzuki is introducing its Grand Vitara this month, after a debut at the Geneva auto show. Late this year, it begins selling the Jimny, which uses a stretched Samurai platform.
Land Rover's new Freelander was introduced last autumn.
In 1996, Suzuki knocked Toyota down to the No. 3 position in the sport-utility segment as sales of the Vitara increased and the RAV4 declined. Kakei said Suzuki will pull ahead in 1999 when sales of the Jimny are in full swing.
Land Rover says it is not concerned with Suzuki's growth.
'We would not look on Suzuki as a direct competitor since their prices are much lower than ours and Land Rovers have a higher value,' said Nick Argent, manager of corporate communications at Land Rover. 'While we recognize the numbers, as a premium brand we do not look at the market in the same terms as Suzuki does.'
Meanwhile, Freelander production at the Solihull plant is 'running flat out,' said spokesman Denis Chick. Orders are running ahead of projections, he said, and an extra shift has been added.
The majority of Freelander's 60,000 units a year will be sold in Europe, but some will be exported to South America, Africa and Australia.
The new Grand Vitara will be priced around $25,500. The engine is a 2.5-liter, 24-valve, V-6 the biggest developed so far by small-engine specialist Suzuki. The three-door model is built in Canada and the five-door in Japan.
The entry-level Jimny is a stretched Samurai, its wheelbase 345mm longer. The Jimny will be shown at Paris in September and go on sale in October, priced at around $15,000.
Sales projections for 1999 are 10,000 units.
A short-wheelbase version of the Grand Vitara is due early in 1999. The X-90 went out of production last autumn.