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Suzuki Denies Four-Wheel Drive Car Prone to Rollovers

June 10, 1988

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The maker of the sporty Suzuki Samurai on Thursday attacked a consumer group that says the car is dangerously prone to rolling over, denouncing Consumer Union’s test results as ″inaccurate and defamatory.″

The widely publicized tests by Consumers Union apparently are intended to persuade the government to adopt new stability standards for sport utility vehicles like the Samurai, said Doug Mazza, vice president of American Suzuki Motor Corp., the Japanese carmaker’s U.S. subsidiary.

″The Suzuki Samurai has been falsely accused, and it does not have a design error,″ Mazza said. ″We have absolute confidence in its safety record and road-worthiness in the United States.″

Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, stands by its tests, said David Berliner, assistant director of the Mount Vernon, N.Y., group. He denied the tests were intended to influence federal regulation.

″Our tests simulate a real world situation that any motorist driving at any time might encounter,″ Berliner said. ″We never suggested that the Samurai will turn over every time a driver swerves to avoid an obstacle in the road. We said that its design creates enough chance of that happening to the typical driver that it poses an unacceptable risk.″

The Consumer Reports review has already spurred one class-action suit against American Suzuki, in Circuit Court in Chicago.

Citing the Consumers Union tests, plaintiffs identified only as Steven and Linda Newmark of Missouri and and Lynn Romanek of Illinois seek refunds and unspecified damages. The suit contends Suzuki knew the cars were dangerous but failed to act on the knowledge.

Consumers Union said last week the car ″literally tripped over its feet″ and rolled over in abrupt maneuvers because it is too tall for its small wheelbase. The group called for immediate recall of all 160,000 Samurais on U.S. roads and reimbursement to their owners.

Government accident statistics and tests conducted by an automotive engineering consultant for Suzuki show the vehicle is safe under typical driving conditions, safer than some other vehicles of its type, Mazza said.

At simultaneous news conferences in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, near American Suzuki’s Brea, Calif., headquarters, Mazza showed films of Samurais passing a number of what were described as rigorous tests of the car’s ability to stay upright.

Asked why the well-regarded Consumers Union would recommend recall of a safe vehicle, Mazza suggested the group was trying to pressure the government into adopting stability standards for sport utility vehicles, a category for Jeep-like light trucks.

″For years the Consumers Union has been pressing the government for an unrealistic rollover standard,″ Mazza said. ″What better way than pressing the smallest Japanese automaker with the No. 1 selling sport-utility vehicle?″

He said the company was considering legal action.

The publicity likely will cut Samurai sales, Mazza said, adding that the company has boosted its advertising budget by $1.5 million a week to counter consumer fears raised by the Consumers Union tests. The $8,500 car is promoted as a fun car for the young-at-heart.

Suzuki’s outside engineering consultant, Jon McKibben of Irvine, Calif., said it appeared that the Consumers Union test driver deliberately turned the Samurai more sharply than other cars in the test.

″I would say the difference is the test driver steered the other vehicles in a manner dramatically different from the way in which the Suzuki Samurai was steered,″ McKibben said, acknowledging that he knew of the critical test only by watching television news videotape.

Berliner of the Consumers Union responded: ″Our tests simulate a real world situation that any motorist driving at any time might encounter. ... We never suggested that the Samurai will turn over every time a driver swerves to aviod an obstacle in the road. We said that its design creates enough chance of that happening to the typical driver that it poses an unacceptable risk.″

The Samurais in the Consumers Union tests may have been made unstable by 300-pound ″outriggers″ bolted to the cars to keep them from actually rolling over, as training wheels hold a bicycle upright, McKibben said. Similar tests elsewhere use lighter outriggers, he said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there have been 44 reported incidents of Samurais rolling over, involving 53 injuries and 16 deaths.

Suzuki said its study of federal statistics on fatal accidents found that in the last two years, there were three fatal accidents in which a Samurai may have rolled over on a relatively flat surface. In two of those cases, the drivers had been drinking and none of the three victims wore seat belts, McKibben said.

Consumers Union filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seeking rules requiring that sport-utility vehicles be put through road tests for safety, rather than just requiring them to meet design standards.

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