TOKYO - New models in Japan typically sell like hotcakes - for about three months. Then the public's fancy moves on to something newer. Rare is the car that is selling as well a year after its launch as it did initially.
The Mazda Demio, a high-roofed wagon powered by either a 1.3- or 1.5-liter gasoline engine, is proving the exception to that rule.
In March, 20 months after its launch, it set a new monthly sales record: 14,247, up 53.2 percent from a year earlier. Its previous sales peak was 9,800, set in September 1997.
Indeed, the Demio accounted for 36 percent of all Mazda sales in Japan in March.
The Demio's sales record was all the more remarkable coming at the end of what has been a dismal 12 months of sales in Japan. Indeed, total industry sales in March slid 20.3 percent, continuing a drop that began in April 1997.
According to Salomon Brothers Asia auto analyst Edward Brogan, the Demio's strength is in line with better than average sales across the low end of the market.
'If you put incentives on products in a U.S. context, $1,000 is going to have more impact on a Sentra than on an Infiniti. I suspect Mazda concentrated its marketing support on where it did the most good,' he said.
Indeed, a look at March's top sellers shows that the push was on at the low end. Four of the top 10 spots were held by minicars, those with engines under 660 cc. Another five were compacts and subcompacts.
Unlike previous months, when larger minivans, sport-utes and luxury sedans occupied the list, the Toyota Mark II was the only larger model to make the top 10 in March.
It is unclear, though, whether the drive to boost volumes with lower-priced models spilled over into the shady practice of so-called self-registration sales. In such sales, dealers buy cars themselves, supposedly for use as test-drive vehicles, but as often as not to meet sales quotas. The purchased vehicles are then moved to the used-car lot, often with under 50 miles on the odometer.
Those sales accounted for 1.85 percent of all sales in 1995, 2.07 percent in 1996, and 2.67 percent in 1997, according to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association. Self-registration figures for March are not yet available.
In December, when dealers sought to pump up their calendar-year totals, self-registration sales accounted for a whopping 10 percent of all sales.