Resurgent economy bolsters foreign car sales in Japan

Taste for foreign bling surges despite weakened yen

TOKYO -- For months, U.S. and European automakers have been fretting about the impact of the tumbling yen on local sales.

Without doubt, the shrinking yen makes Japanese exports more profitable and increases their allure in overseas markets.

But here's the flip side they don't complain about: Import sales in Japan are soaring. Sales of foreign brand vehicles climbed 18 percent in May and are up 12 percent for the year.

Normally a weaker yen would make those imports more expensive.

Yet, the same economic policies that are talking down the yen have also pumped up the overall economy and -- importantly -- the Japanese stock market. The economic blitzkrieg has been dubbed "Abenomics" after its architect, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Indeed, the benchmark Nikkei stock index has been on a rampage. It has rocketed 53 percent in the last 12 months. On May 22, it hit a five-year high, though it has since lost some ground.

Pundits say a lot of those stock market gains are being plowed into conspicuous consumption in the form of pricey foreign cars.

And when we say foreign cars, we mainly mean European.

Mercedes-Benz sales rose 59 percent in May and are up 22 percent for the first five months. BMW and Audi were up 18 and 19 percent last month respectively. Even Volvo rose 20 percent.

Sales are even more intoxicated at the exotic end.

Aston Martin sales have climbed 76 percent so far this year. Ferrari is up 21 percent. At Lamborghini: a 37 percent advance. Bentley rose 28 percent. Rolls Royce chalked a 12 percent gain. Porsche probably feels let down by its measly 8 percent rise.

The downside is that all of these sales still amount to peanuts. Ferrari sold only 41 cars in May, Bentley just 14.

Bentley sold 189 cars in the United States that month.

American brands aren't catching the wave -- with the exception of Chrysler. It has nearly tripled sales, mainly because Chrysler gets the full-year effect of adding the Yspilon compact to its lineup. The car is a rebadged Lancia Ypsilon and only the second car it sells locally, after its 300 sedan. Indeed Chrysler only returned to the market full force last year.

Cadillac was up 21 percent trough May, and Ford rose 17 percent. But Chevrolet, Jeep and Dodge all saw sales fall.

Still, the boom for bling says one thing about consumer mindset in Japan, where the champagne tastes of the 1980s bubble era still sparkle in a population cowed by the nation's lost decade:

Spend it when you got it.

You can reach Hans Greimel at -- Follow Hans on Twitter: @hansgreimel

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