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Japanese continue U.S. assault; German luxury cars put Detroit on the defensive

Detroit/Munich. There is no sign of the usual polite reserve that is so common in the Far East when Yoshimi Inaba talks about Toyota's plans to be the world's No.1 automaker.

"We are aiming at becoming the largest automobile manufacturer," Inaba, Toyota's strategy boss for America and other growth market, told Automobilwoche. In other words Toyota plans to overtake soon the U.S. giant General Motors.

The U.S. market is the largest battlefield. In 2003 Toyota managed to increase its U.S. sales by 6.3 percent to a record 1.85 million units, despite the downward trend of the overall market.

The Toyota Camry again was the top selling car in the USA.

Jim Press, head of Toyota Motor Sales, hopes that by 2005 at the latest he will sell two million cars in the USA.

Honda and Nissan are also experiencing record highs: In 2003 they managed sales increases of 8.2 percent (1.35 million units) and 3.7 percent (675,826 units) respectively.

At the Detroit Motor Show the Japanese presented new full-size pickups that are aimed straight at the U.S. manufacturers' last bastion.

Toyota showed the largest lifestyle truck in its category, the prototype of the 5.80-meter long pickup FTX. It will be introduced in 2006 to compete with American icons such as the Ford F150.

The new Toyota plant in Texas was build specifically for the FTX and has a starting capacity of 150,000 units a year.

Other Japanese manufacturers are also taking up the challenge: Honda showed its first large pickup, the SUT concept, which will launch in 2005. Nissan presented the already successful Titan's little brother, the Frontier.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler know difficult times lie ahead. In 2003 their US market share shrank by another 1.5 percent to below 60 percent. Twenty years ago their share was more than 80 percent.

On the day of the opening of the auto show a Detroit News headline read: "It is a race for survival."

The Big Three are now launching a counter offensive with a flood of new models. Ford called 2004 "the year of the car" and plans to renew 60 percent of its model range by the end of the year. GM even plans an "American revolution" with a promise to launch "ten new passenger cars and pickups in ten months."

The basic problem is that the market is dominated by incentives. This has even entered a new phase in 2004.

In a gigantic marketing campaign GM will give away 1,000 cars.

Group boss Rick Wagoner told Automobilwoche: "In 2004 we will be even more aggressive, with offensive sales promotions of all sizes and shapes. American customers expect that and we can definitely afford it."

Chrysler's average discounts have reached record highs with 2,832 dollars per car. Discounts have more than doubled at Ford compared to 2002, reaching 2,752 dollars. In an interview with Automobilwoche Ford boss Nick Scheele said there are signs of the discount battle calming down in 2004.

He remains guarded nevertheless: "We will probably not manage to completely get rid of incentives."

Ford and other manufacturers' are supposed to find the money for such measures by strengthening their technical networks.

The Big Three are focusing on the synergies with their group partners in Europe and the Far East: GM with Opel, Saab and Subaru; Ford with Volvo and Ford of Europe; Chrysler with Mitsubishi and now also with Smart.

Automakers are also investing in high quality interiors such as those shown in models exhibited in Detroit.

GM chief designer Dave Rand said: "We want a better interior design for the new cars. All those involved (in interior design) have now woken up."

Ford design boss J Mays plans to make all future models more attractive "irrespective of their price."

There are many signs of a revival in the U.S. auto market in 2004.

The number of new registrations could increase from approximately 16.6 million units to more than 17 million, According to some forecasts.

But it is still not clear who will profit most from it.

Although GM and Ford have promised their stockholders significant sales and profit increases for 2004, others also have momentum.

The German automakers increased their share in the U.S. passenger car market by 0.6 percent to nearly 11 percent in 2003. They already have a 36 percent share in the luxury car market and hope to get an even bigger piece of the cake.

BMW is at the top of the list. In 2003 the manufacturer increased its sales figures in North America by 7.5 percent to 276,000 units and its market share to 1.6 percent.

BMW boss Helmut Panke announced "further growth" for 2004. He said he can see BMW increasing its market share to 2 percent in the long term.

Porsche plans to double its U.S. sales in the medium term -- thanks to the off-roader Cayenne which had a sales increase of 33 percent in 2003.

Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen managers are more cautious. While Mercedes-Benz reached a sales record in 2003 by selling 218,700 cars in the USA, the weak dollar has lowered expectations.

Financial director Manfred Genz said the company is hedged in 2004. But he warned: "should the situation be similar in 2005, it would have massive effects on profits."

VW's U.S. sales figures in 2003 dropped by 10 percent, despite VW managing to hold its market share.

Even worse: while in 2002 VW earned 1.1 billion euros in North America, financial director Hans Dieter Poetsch announced "slight losses" for 2003. For 2004 he expects a "steady demand."

Gerd Klauss, boss of Volkswagen of America, speaks of 2004 as being a "transition year."

He believes that there will be "significant growth" from 2005.

In 2004 VW will offer only restyled old models in the USA.

VW subsidiary Audi sold 86,421 cars last year in the USA, an increase of 0.8 percent. Audi executives do not want to commit to estimating sales for 2004. Audi's new models for the U.S. market are the A8 twelve cylinder; A6; and A3 Sportback.

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