Suzuki was the first company to offer a kei car in 1955. One interesting departure from other Kei cars was the Fronte Coupé introduced in September 1971. It was a 2+2 (or a strict 2-seater) Giugiaro-designed mini GT based on the rear-engine Suzuki Fronte, measuring a mere 2995 mm. It used a 359 cc two-stroke engine developing 31, 34 or 37 hp (35 in later models) depending on equipment level. The Fronte Coupé was discontinued in June, 1976, as it didn't suit the new Kei Jidosha limits, nor the stricter emissions regulations. The "Cervo" name used for the replacement comes from the Italian word for deer (cervinae in Latin). The nameplate was retired between 1998 and 2006, and again in March 2010, although it may be revived for the Indian market before the end of the year.
Cervo SS20 (first generation)
After a hiatus of over a year, Suzuki returned to the sports minicar market with the new Cervo in October 1977. The SS20 Cervo was mainly a JDM model (although it was also sold as a LHD in Chile) with a 539 cc three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. The SS20 used the chassis from the 1976 Fronte 7-S, but was equipped with the larger T5A engine (this was the rear-mounted version of the LJ50 used in the Jimny and Fronte Hatch, also known as the T5B in the FF Alto/Fronte). The body was based on the Giugiaro designed Fronte Coupé, but with a bulge in the front and bigger bumpers which led to the loss of some of the original's grace. Instead of square headlights, the Cervo received round items. The new rear glass hatch added convenience.
Worse was that the new 550 cc engine was strangled by emissions requirements. Whereas the most powerful 360 cc version had offered 37 PS (27 kW) at 6,000 rpm, the new T5A only provided 28 PS (21 kW) at 5,000 rpm and had an additional 55–80 kg to drag around. To keep acceleration acceptable, gearing was rather low, keeping claimed top speed to 120 km/h (75 mph). This was ten more than the Fronte 7-S sedan version could achieve, thanks to lower wind resistance, but Car Graphic were only able to reach 111.80 km/h (69 mph) when testing the car in 1977, with the 0–400 m sprint taking 23 seconds. The engine ran out of breath past 7,000 rpm. Suzuki were aware that the Cervo, unlike its predecessor, was no longer a mini GT car. The advertising also reflected this, generally targeting the female demographic (except for the sporty CX-G version).
Equipment levels ranged from the entry-level CX (¥608,000 in 1977), via the "ladies' version" CX-L to the top-of-the-line CX-G (¥698,000). The CX-L was added in 1978 and had brighter trim, to specifically target feminine customers. Only the CX-G had front disc brakes; the others had to make do with drums all around. Handling was as can be expected, the rear-engine leading to a somewhat twitchy front end. In the SC100s, the heavier four-cylinder engine was countered by a balancing weight in the front bumper.
The SS20 Cervo received a very minor facelift in 1978, consisting mainly of interior upgrades. In June 1982, the rear-engined Cervo was discontinued in favor of a more conventionally laid out replacement, the SS40.
For export, Suzuki transformed the Cervo into the SC100, first introduced in April 1978. The SC100 was known in England by the nickname "Whizzkid". The three-cylinder engine was replaced by a rear-mounted 970 cc four-cylinder F10A engine (later used in the SJ410) developing 47 PS (35 kW). Top speed was 142.8 km/h (89 mph) in a contemporary test. The body differed from the Cervo's in that the windshield was not as steeply raked, necessitating a different doorframe and side window as well. Square headlights were used in European markets, with either round or square ones used elsewhere. In European markets the grille incorporated the chunky indicator lenses, which were normally positioned in a space underneath the bumper – these openings were blanked with plastic grilles.
In the UK it was only available as the lavishly equipped SC100 GX, while in other countries it was also offered as a CX or the more luxurious CX-G. The GX, with a cigar lighter, reclining front seats, and independent all-round suspension, sold for £2,400 upon introduction (the slightly larger Alto of the same period sold for £3375). The marketing campaign was further helped by an enthusiastic owner, the late LJK Setright, long-time CAR magazine columnist. Other markets included the Netherlands, Hong Kong, South Africa, New Zealand and several Latin American countries.
It was sold in Europe from 1979 to 1982, when production ended. There was only one model change, when dashboard and column switches were modified in January 1980. With demand always outstripping supply, British importer Heron Suzuki sold 4,696 SC100s in Britain, where the car has since then gained minor classic status. Nimag sold around 3,400 SC100s in the Netherlands. As of 2007, there were 54 "Whizzkids" registered for the road in the UK.
Cervo SS40 (2nd generation)
In June 1982, an all-new Cervo was presented. Based on the underpinnings of the recently changed Alto/Fronte, the Cervo now sported front-wheel drive with a transversally mounted four-stroke engine. The F5A engine was the same as used in the SS40 Fronte. A twin-choke carb meant a whopping 29 hp (22 kW) was available, rather than the 28 hp (21 kW) in the "cooking" Alto/Mighty Boy. The Cervo offered a lower, much more sporty driving position than its Alto/Fronte sister cars. Anyone over 172 cm (5 ft 8 in) would certainly hit their head on the ceiling. Strangely, considering its supposedly sporty character, the Cervo was higher geared than its Fronte sister car. Top speed, however, either remained the same as the 110 km/h (68 mph) of the Fronte (according to one source), or a little bit higher, at 115 km/h (71 mph), according to another. To distinguish the Cervo from the other SS40 versions, its model code was SS40C (Alto: SS40V, Fronte: SS40S, Mighty Boy: SS40T).
The new more aerodynamic body looked a bit more plain than its sharp predecessor, but the fastback shape echoed Giugiaro's original design. The headlights were square, there was more glass than on the SS20 (but with a broad B-pillar) and the larger rear glass hatch (still not a proper hatch) now offered better access to a much more usable luggage space. The rear seat folded; some versions even offered a remote opening mechanism and heated rear window. The SS40 was also the first Cervo to offer automatic transmission, a two-speed. This all reflected a steady move away from the original "mini Gran Turismo" concept towards a much softer "Personal Car".
When introduced, only a CS (4MT) or CS-Q (2AT) were offered (¥580,000/620,000). By September the more upscale CS-L (5MT) and CS-QL (2AT) were added to the lineup, offering (partially) fabric covered seats and a number of other conveniences at a starting price of ¥687,000. All had 10-inch steel wheels. The automatic transmission was never too popular, offering only two gear ratios and considerably worse acceleration and gas mileage (down 20%), along with a higher price.
In May 1983, less than a year after introduction, the Cervo received a light facelift. In light of new regulations, wing mirrors were moved to the doors and the screw holes on the fenders were covered up. The mechanical changes were light: a slightly adjusted cam profile, the compression rate was upped to 9,7:1 (previously 9,5), the EGR and catalytic converter were improved and the engine received an automatic choke. The lineup also received an overhaul, now looking as follows:
There was also a CS-M / CS-QM special edition (based on the CS-D) in either an all-white or an all-red paint scheme with a black-and-red interior (¥633,000 / ¥673,000). The CS-G was aimed at a more masculine clientele, and was the first SS40 Cervo to use male models in the advertising. The CS-F had a very high 5th gear and offered a 5% gas mileage improvement over other Cervos.
An even sportier version appeared in November 1983, when the CT and CT-G Turbo versions were offered. The F5A Turbo was Suzuki's first forced induction car engine and produced 40 PS (29 kW) and a useful 54 N·m (40 lb·ft). It received an electronic carburetor and a lower compression rate of 8,6:1. Only a five-speed manual transmission was available, and front disc brakes were standard. The CT weighed in at 560 kg (1,235 lb), prices were ¥748,000 and ¥898,000 respectively. A two-tone red-and-black interior and dummy hood scoop added to the Turbo's sporty looks, while the CT-G also received a rev counter. Top speed has been quoted at 135 km/h (84 mph).
In January 1985 another minor facelift occurred, with new, more comfortable seats and a new front grille. The interior also sported more fabric, an improved manual shifter and a half-leather steering wheel on the CT-G. The side mirrors were now mounted in the corner between the door and A-pillar, rather than on the door itself. The CT-G received body colored bumpers and mirrors, which was optional on lesser versions. Power output was up to 31 PS (23 kW), due to a new carburetor. Top speed according to German Auto Katalog was up by five, to 120 km/h (75 mph). The lineup consisted of the CT-G (sporty Turbo), CS-G (sporty NA), CS-D / CS-QD ("deluxe" versions - with a vinyl rear seat nonetheless) and CS / CS-Q (standard version).
With Kei car sales shrinking overall and the Cervo losing market share, sales were dropping precipitously. In February 1987 the second-generation Cervo received its third and final update. The Turbo was discontinued and the lineup rationalized to two versions, the sporty CS-G with a 5-speed manual and the lower grade CS-D with either a 4-speed manual or the 2-speed automatic. As further rationalization, all models now had roll-type safety belts (hitherto, CS and CS-D versions had come with fixed belts), front disc brakes and air conditioning.
By January 1988, a new Cervo had been presented and the SS40C was discontinued shortly thereafter. Due to its lesser sales, the SS40C never received as many technical improvements as its Alto sister model. The Alto Turbo gained fuel injection and other technologies, but the ostensibly sporty Cervo had to make do with a carburetted 40 PS (29 kW). These days, many Cervo owners modify their cars by bolting on parts from later Altos, making the Cervo live up to its sporty appearance.
Cervo CG72V/CH72V (3rd generation)
On January 22, 1988, the next Cervo was introduced. Suzuki were accentuating the Cervo's van capabilities this time around, with a squat, boxy rear end which gave the car an excceedingly bizarre appearance in combination with the front clip and door skins of the Alto/Fronte. The C-pillar was very wide, the front part of the roof was made of glass, there was a small wraparound rear spoiler and a more prominent one at the top of the hatchback lid. One nickname in Japan was "Airbrick", while others referred to it as "Komachi Yokocho" (横丁小町, "side alley beauty") - hinting at the Cervo's continued popularity with stylish young females. The interior was no less unusual than the outside: a large gray and bright yellow diagonal pattern covered the seats while white gauges added a touch of sportiness. Storage compartments abounded, in the thick C-pillars as well as in a central console. A high-powered Mitsubishi Diatone stereo was also standard.
The new Cervo benefitted from various technical improvements made to the Alto/Fronte, fitting the new F5B SOHC 12-valve three-cylinder (carbureted). 40 PS (29 kW) at a peaky 7,500 rpm was available from 547 cc. Three well-equipped models were available:
- CGXF front-wheel drive, 5MT. ¥698,000 (CG72V)
- CGXL front-wheel drive, 3AT. ¥750,000 (CG72V)
- CGXJ four-wheel drive, 5MT. ¥770,000 (CH72V)
In March, three models with the world's first electric power steering (CGPF/CGPL/CGPJ) were added to the lineup, at a juicy ¥150,000 surcharge. Actress and pop idol Yuka Ōnishi (大西結花) was the spokesperson for the ad campaign, while an all female motorcycle racing team (Team Angela) raced a Turbocharged Cervo in the Safari Rally. However, it was all to no avail: The rivals, Daihatsu's new Leeza and Mazda's Autozam Carol both sold much better. Combined with the removal of certain tax breaks for small cargo vehicles, this meant that the Cervo's already narrow slot in the market had essentially disappeared. When the new 660 cc Kei regulations were introduced, Suzuki decided to call it quits rather than spend a lot of money to update such a slow-selling vehicle and Cervo production ended in May 1990.