Toyota respects Hyundai, but do others?

DETROIT -- Toyota respects Hyundai. But too many Japanese still don't.

How else to explain this paragraph in a New York Times article yesterday headlined, “Toyota feels exchange-rate pinch as rivals gain:”

Hyundai is rapidly increasing its share in major markets, including the United States and China, using record profits to offer aggressive sales incentives that Toyota is struggling to match. (emphasis added)

I'm sure the Times reporter and her editors are smart people. But she has been reading too many Japanese media reports and talking to too many Japanese analysts. It's simply not true.

From March through July, the most recent month for which I have data from, Toyota's per-vehicle incentives have exceeded Hyundai's here in the U.S. market.

Toyota, trying to offset consumer wariness about its products after several waves of recalls, paid an average $2,000 per vehicle in both June and July, up from $1,900 in April and May.

Hyundai paid $1,850 in July, down from $1,700 in June and $1,600 in May. It paid $1,650 in April.

It's been three years since I left Japan to return to the United States after a dozen years in Tokyo. Before I left, I regularly ran into Japanese journalists and market analysts who assumed that Hyundai's gains in the U.S. market had to be due to cheap prices. They simply would not accept that in J.D. Power surveys, Hyundai was outscoring Toyota on quality.

Toyota had no such illusions. Toyota executives routinely cited Hyundai as a competitor -- sometimes the competitor -- worth watching.

The Toyota-Hyundai rivalry has shaped up as one every bit as fierce as Chevrolet-Ford. And every true rivalry is based on the competitors being nearly evenly matched. But some folks back in Japan just don't get it.