Voltz is GM's new bid for Japan niche

The Toyota Voltz, a small sport wagon that will go on sale in Japan next year, gives General Motors another opportunity to improve its image in that elusive market.

The Voltz, a rebadged Pontiac Vibe, will be imported from Toyota Motor Corp.’s 50-50 U.S. joint venture with GM, New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, Calif.

Toyota’s plan to sell the vehicle through its Japan dealerships offers GM another chance to win acceptance in Japan, the world’s second-biggest auto market. Except for right-hand-drive steering, the Voltz will be barely distinguishable from the Vibe, a five-door small car designed by GM but engineered by Toyota.

The companies have not released the planned volume for the Voltz. The Vibe goes into production at NUMMI in March. There will be lighting differences between the Japanese and U.S. versions of the vehicle for legal purposes, but otherwise it will be the same as the Vibe.

Toyota also is preparing to build its own version of the Vibe, called the Matrix. But that product has different styling lines, will be built in Canada and is not planned for export, according to Toyota officials in the United States.

The Voltz strategy is a different approach to selling more North American-made vehicles in Japan, something GM has wanted to do for years.

GM has stumbled more than once in that effort. Saturn Corp. said this year that it would halt its attempt to market U.S-made cars in Japan. Japanese consumers also soundly rejected the Chevrolet Cavalier when Toyota attempted to sell it there.

Because the Voltz will be built under the eyes of Toyota factory managers at NUMMI, the product will reach finicky Japanese consumers with a virtual Toyota manufacturing seal of approval. Except for the fact that NUMMI’s work force is represented by the UAW, the venture is operated mostly as a Toyota plant, complete with traditional Toyota suppliers, rules and fastidious quality monitoring.

The exporting plan also is a milestone for NUMMI. The Voltz is NUMMI’s first attempt at producing a right-hand-drive vehicle and the first effort to produce a vehicle for export.

More significant, the car also represents an unusual GM attempt to use its share of NUMMI production to supply Toyota’s needs.

For 18 years, NUMMI has been mostly a source for Toyota cars and pickups, although GM is entitled to up to 150,000 cars a year from the venture.

But for the past six years, because of steady demand for the Toyota Corollas built there and meager demand for the twin Chevrolet Prizm, Toyota has carried NUMMI. Last year, while Toyota took just under 300,000 vehicles from NUMMI, GM obtained only about 50,000.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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