TOKYO - Honda Motor Co. has added a small station wagon to its line in Japan, creating stiff new competition for segment leaders Toyota and Nissan.
Moreover, analysts say, the new wagon also may help increase sales of such Honda luxury models as the recently remodeled Legend.
Named after a Greek goddess who watched over little children, the Orthia is smaller than the made-in-Ohio Accord wagon that has been Honda's only station wagon in Japan's recreational-vehicle segment.
Japan's RV segment includes station wagons, sport-utilities and vans.
Honda has no plans to export the Orthia.
'Wagon buyers around the world are very price-sensitive,' said spokesman T. Ohtsuka. Especially in Europe, he added, 'The wagon market for this size is very competitive. We couldn't price this competitively there,' because it is built in Japan.
Indeed, to keep the price range as wide as possible, Honda is offering the car without optional airbags or anti-lock brakes for as little as 1,603,000 yen, or about $15,265 at current exchange rates.
That trim level, the GX, comes equipped with a five-speed manual transmission and a 1.8-liter dual overhead cam engine.
Honda officials said they expect most customers to order optional dual airbags for $761, and many to add the optional three-channel ABS for $933.
'Still, we think it's better for the customers to select. Many customers want a cheaper car now,' said Honda President Nobuhiko Kawamoto.
The top-of-the-line model is the 2.0 GX-S, a 2.0-liter powered four-wheel-drive version with a four-speed automatic transmission, for $20,266.
The high-volume model is expected to be the 2.0 GX, for $17,047.
In Japan, the Orthia will go up against such established small wagons as the Toyota Caldina and Nissan Avenir.
The challenge to those models drew Japanese media to the Orthia's launch.
A Honda spokesman said the company set up 300 chairs in anticipation of 250 attendees - and 400 people came.
As important as the Orthia itself is, the new model also paves the way for a commercial version due later, to be known as the Partner.
'The Partner should help sales of the Legend and the luxury version of the Odyssey' minivan, said Edward Brogan, auto analyst at Jardine Fleming Securities Ltd. in Tokyo
The reason: Owners of small companies in Japan often want to buy those luxury models in a package deal with commercial wagons used by their companies, with the entire bill going on the company tab.
Without a commercial wagon to offer, Honda had a tough time landing that business.
Honda targets sales of 3,000 a month.
Sales began March 1.