Nissan's 2 big holes to plug with rival Honda

In the United States, Nissan still trails Honda in sales, though the race is poised to get more interesting. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO -- The numbers are in, and Nissan Motor Co. kept its hold as Japan's No. 2 automaker in 2013, holding a wide margin over third-place Honda Motor Co.

Nissan beat Honda's global sales by some 800,000 vehicles. And CEO Carlos Ghosn's carmaker edged its Japanese rival in almost every major market worldwide.

But there were two glaring exceptions: the United States and Japan.

Despite Nissan's massive global footprint, its performance in those two key markets is a bit of an aberration -- Honda still manages to outsell it.

Japan's carmakers announced their 2013 sales tallies on Wednesday.

Nissan's global sales increased 3 percent to 5.1 million vehicles. Honda's sales grew at a faster pace of 12 percent, but it still trailed Nissan with sales of 4.3 million units.

Toyota Motor Corp., lest anyone forget, is Japan's -- and the world's -- biggest automaker. Last year it sold 9.98 million vehicles worldwide, more than Nissan and Honda combined.

Nissan's overseas reach was huge.

It sold 4.4 million cars, or 86 percent of its total, outside Japan. Honda was less dependent on its backyard, selling 3.5 million, or 81 percent of its total volume, overseas, and 19 percent of 2013 sales volume at home.

Critically, Nissan beat Honda in Europe, Mexico, China and the rest of Asia and the developing world. Yet it trailed in the United States and Japan.

Internally, Nissan executives find that puzzling. And they are trying to close that gap.

In Japan, Honda stays ahead partly because of its popular minicars -- the 0.66-liter minivehicles that account for about 40 percent of the domestic market. Honda revamped its whole minicar lineup with top-notch product and has long made the cars in-house.

Nissan used to farm out production to rivals. But it overhauled its approach and now develops and manufacturers its own minicars through a joint venture with Mitsubishi.

That should make it more competitive in a crucial segment. But Nissan has a long way to catch Honda at home. It sold 185,929 minicars in Japan last year; Honda moved 407,000. And while Nissan's minicar sales shot up 21 percent last year, Honda's climbed 27 percent.

In the United States, the race is closer.

American Honda's sales rose 7 percent to 1.5 million, with market share unchanged at 9.8 percent. Nissan North America whittled away the gap with a 9 percent increase to 1.2 million units. Nissan's market share ticked up to 8 percent, from 7.9 percent.

America is a special market for Honda, so it's not surprising the company leads Nissan.

Honda was the first Japanese automaker to build vehicles in the United States when it opened an assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, in 1982 to build the Accord. And it started exporting cars from the United States in 1987. Last year, for the first time, it shipped more cars overseas from U.S. factories than it imported to the United States from Japan.

But Nissan has Honda in its sights.

New production coming online in Mexico should help supply a sales surge. And Jose Munoz, the recently named chairman of Nissan's North American operations, is under standing order to boost U.S. share to 10 percent.

The fight for U.S. sales is about to get more interesting.

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

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