Almost Sports Cars: Suzuki X-90

Almost Sports Cars

As a supposed replacement for the Samurai, the X-90 was a huge disappointment, and not only because it was downright weird-looking.

We might be largely covering cars which aren’t quite sports cars in this series, but we thought it would be interesting to include one that isn’t quite a sport utility. It’s really not so difficult to find an SUV or crossover which isn’t especially capable off-road, but it’s not every day that one of these is also useless on the road. With the rise of crossovers and an overall trend not to use SUVs off-road in general, it’s sometimes difficult to say which vehicles qualify, so it’s nice to see one which definitively doesn’t.

The story of the X-90 starts back in the Eighties. Suzuki was selling a small SUV called the Samurai. Though a capable off-road machine, the Samurai received what some consider unfair negative attention for its high-speed handling abilities. Sales of the Samurai slowed and Suzuki was left looking for a new small SUV for the US market. It obviously wouldn’t have wanted to go with anything too similar to the Samurai, as people might assume it suffered from the same problem. So the X-90 debuted in 1995, and you would certainly have to concede that it was different. The X-90 was actually related to the bigger Sidekick, but with some very different styling.

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In some ways, the X-90’s styling was really ahead of its time. Today, vehicles like the Nissan Juke are built as part of an effort to create a niche for small crossovers, but the X-90 was doing this all the way back in ’95. Of course, Suzuki took it to much more of an extreme, and the result was, let’s face it, weird. It had just two seats, a coupe-like body, targa roof and next to no truck space. It’s strange enough for a vehicle with those features to have such a high ride height, but this wasn’t even a crossover we’re talking about, the X-90 had very truck-like body-on-frame construction. The engine was a 1.6-liter four-cylinder which produced 95 horsepower.

The X-90 was actually pretty light for a body-on-frame vehicle, but the lack of both power or any sort of utility made it absolutely pointless. Suzuki apparently decided to embrace the weirdness of the X-90, although it would be pretty hard to pretend it wasn’t weird. Print ads had a psychedelic motif, along with the slogan "What are you staring at?" It was also a pretty cheap vehicle, but it didn’t really offer much that a coupe didn’t. The price came to about the same as what was then known as the Miata, and with the two being about equally useful, why on earth would anyone buy an X-90? The answer is that almost nobody did.

As abysmal as Samurai sales had been in its final years, they were still considerably better than the X-90’s. Suzuki sold just 4,641 in the US (by far the vehicle’s biggest market) in 1995, 2,087 in 1996 and 477 in '97, prompting Suzuki to kill the vehicle off after that. Jeremy Clarkson once called it the worst car in the world, and while he certainly seems to say that a lot, it wasn’t exactly a misplaced comment. Quite a few units of the X-90 found homes with Red Bull as promotional vehicles. Which makes sense, as it was one of the only vehicles on the market that didn't look any more undignified with a giant Red Bull can stuck to the roof.

Since then, Red Bull has switched to the Mini for promotional use, and you can feel free to draw your own conclusions about that. The thing about the X-90 is that the idea of a small two-seat SUV really isn’t so completely daft, but when it came to the details, Suzuki got it wrong in every important respect. The real shame is that it replaced the Samurai, a vehicle which, bad press or not, was genuinely useful in the dirt. In the end, it isn’t a huge surprise that Suzuki doesn’t sell cars in the US anymore.

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