Here come the Suzutas!

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As buying trends in the South African market usher the once-hallowed Corolla nameplate into obscurity, Toyota has adopted badge-engineering to bolster its car line-up.

Mike-Fourie-Here-come-the-SuzutasAh, the Eighties. Many of us get nostalgic about the decade’s sincere gaudiness – largely by virtue of utilising the time machine that is YouTube – even if, from a political point of view, it was a dark era in our beloved Republic’s history. It was all of 40 years ago, yet so many of our motoring community’s brand allegiances stem from what transpired in those days.

Do you recall that Toyota adopted the “Everything keeps going right” slogan and sold many thousands of the Corolla compact sedan (and its Conquest hatchback variant) to become the country’s leading vehicle manufacturer? Ford, in turn, greatly reduced its role in South Africa due to international sanctions and slipped back. It produced cars under the Samcor banner but fell into the habit of slapping Ford and Mazda badges on cars interchangeably.

VW, meanwhile, moved into second place during that period and, when the subcompact hatchback boom began with the arrival of the Polo in the late Nineties (while Toyota was soldiering on with its legacy Corolla variants), the Uitenhage-based firm laid the foundation to end up where it is today at the pinnacle of the passenger-vehicle market courtesy of the Vivo and the Polo.

Indeed, the brands that rose to prominence in the Eighties still rule the roost despite a proliferation in the number of carmakers represented in the local market. VW heads the car segment and Toyota dominates the bakkie and SUV market. Don’t think for a moment the latter’s happy with the state of affairs, though.

Make no mistake, Toyota has done its damndest to make inroads into its rival’s lead but finding the right product line-up to achieve that has proven tricky. The Yaris, which arrived here in second-generation guise in the mid Noughties, was a nifty package but subsequent versions were much less adorable.

Moreover, the Corolla – the bestselling car in the history of the automobile – is not only pricey these days, but out of step with purchasing trends. Sales figures indicate consumers favour compact crossovers. The year 2020 was a proverbial dumpster fire, of that there is no doubt, but Toyota sold fewer than 1 500 Corollas (four- and five-door versions), a veritable disaster.

Granted, the Corolla Quest sells well on the basis of its good value and fleet potential, as do Toyota’s minibuses, but the brand is left exposed by its lack of small SUVs (other than the boutique C-HR and the bargain-bin Rush) to slot in below the RAV4.

Fortunately, the brand recently rid itself of the long-serving Etios budget hatchback. It had been the first Indian-made Toyota to be sold in SA but it didn’t exactly exude all-round quality. However, its successor, the Starlet, does. The product of an agreement between TMC and Suzuki (secured in 2019), the newcomer is simply a rebadged Suzuki Baleno, which has been on sale since 2016…

The Baleno is awkward because it straddles sub- and compact segments; it never sold in great numbers. However, in the few months the Starlet was on sale in 2020, Toyota sold six times as many units as Suzuki did of the Baleno … in the entire year.

That’s the power of Toyota’s reputation and extensive dealer network; it has the ability to turn an underperforming product into a sure-fire winner. The Baleno, was one of the best-kept secrets in the new vehicle market. Now, Suzuki may just as well discontinue it because a freshly badged Suzuta is gobbling up its customers. And there’s more pain on the way for the Japanese marque; by the time you read this, Suzuki will have introduced the Vitara Brezza and its Toyota equivalent – the Urban Cruiser – will have reached the market, too.

Will these developments make VW fear its market advantage is under threat? Perhaps not yet but Toyota has already gained an admirable subcompact and soon it will offer a conventional compact crossover. Everything is more likely to “go right” if you have a choice of rival products to commandeer.

About Mike Fourie

Mike has been a motoring editor for 20 years. He is a three-time World Car of the Year jury member and lives in Sydney, Australia, with his partner Jacques and their cat, Kerneels.