Japan's car makers lose traction to minicars and imports

The traditional powerhouses in Japan's automobile industry are suffering in the wake of the March 11 natural disasters, with consumers opting for economical mini-cars and imports.

Suzuki Motor Corp.'s WagonR rose to the top of the domestic best-seller lists in May, becoming the first mini-car - defined as a vehicle with an engine displacement of up to 660 cc - to take top spot for two years.

Suzuki was fortunate in as much as its production facilities and parts suppliers are concentrated in Shizuoka Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo and a long way from the areas that were worst affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

But with Daihatsu Motor Co.'s Move minicar rising to take second spot, the new trend in Japan appears to be for buyers to look at vehicles that are cheaper to buy and more economical to run.

Some 11,186 units of the WagonR were sold in May, down 22.7 percent from the same month last year, while 9,402 of Daihatsu's Move left forecourts, an increase of 6.6 percent.

The Fit subcompact produced by Honda Motor Co. had held top spot for two straight months before May, but fell to third place with sales of 9,354 cars, down 21.3 percent, but the biggest loser was Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius. The hybrid has been faring well since its debut, but sales plummeted by 76.1 percent to leave it in sixth place.

Many of Japan's domestic car makers were affected by the natural disasters and some are still attempting to get their facilities back into full production. The result has been a significant increase in sales of foreign cars, according to the Japan Automobile Importers Association.

According to the association, sales of new imported vehicles rose 31 percent in May from the same month last year, rising to 19,238 units.

The majority were cars produced overseas by subsidiaries of Japanese firms, but well over 14,000 of the total bore the badges of foreign companies.

Volkswagen was the biggest winner, securing a 20.1 percent share of the market for imported vehicles, with 3,859 cars. The other top importer was BMW, with sales of 2,292 units, giving an 11.9 percent share of the total market.

JR

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