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Suzuki Motor Corp., Japan’s king of minicars, is on a mission to grow dramatically in the U.S. market.

Suzuki has struggled in America in recent years with a limited model lineup, but now plans to leverage its connections with General Motors Corp., which owns 20 percent of Suzuki, to expand its U.S. product lineup with nine new models by 2007.

“For Suzuki globally the missing piece is America, the world’s most dynamic and competitive market,” says Koichi Suzuki, president of American Suzuki Motor Corp. “Now is the time for us to expand.”

To succeed, Suzuki will have to overcome the challenge of entering new product segments, setting up an effective dealership network and turning around a reputation for poor-quality and underpowered vehicles.

“They’ve got a great opportunity in the U.S.,” said GM chief financial officer John Devine. “They’ve got a strong brand in motorcycles that can be leveraged on the car side.”

Suzuki sells 1.8 million vehicles worldwide, including 600,000 vehicles annually in Japan, 420,000 units in India and 200,000 vehicles in Europe. But in the United States, Suzuki sales fell 14 percent to 58,000 units last year.

“We only competed in two segments, small sedans and small SUVs,” said Tom Carney, marketing director for American Suzuki.

In a plan dubbed ‘357,’ Suzuki aims to more than triple U.S. demand to 200,000 vehicles over the next five years on the strength of new products, many coming from Korea’s GM Daewoo Auto & Technology, of which GM owns 42.1 percent and Suzuki owns 14.9 percent.

Suzuki took the latest step in its expansion this week at the 2004 North American International Auto Show with the unveiling of the $13,000 Reno, a small hatchback.

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