TOKYO - Japan's vehicle production fell 9.7 percent in September to 842,997, due largely to a steep drop in output of minivehicles, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association said.
It was the 12th straight month of declining output. Home market sales in September fell 10.2 percent to 551,348, while exports slid 3.3 percent to 421,339.
The continuing slide in production is making it increasingly likely Japan's 1998 vehicle output will slip below 10 million. That level is widely considered the break-even point for the industry. Any drop below that could trigger job cuts, particularly among suppliers.
In order to keep production above 10 million, the decline in output in the final three months of the year would have to be held to less than 4.6 percent. That would be a major improvement from production drops of 19.7 percent in May, 10.0 percent in June, 10.7 percent in July and 8.6 percent in August.
JAMA maintains that a 10-million year is possible. It argues that a pickup in sales and production of minivehicles - cars and trucks with engines under 660cc - could fuel industrywide output gains.
Effective Oct. 1, government regulations allowed a slight increase in the exterior size of minicars, primarily to accommodate increased safety gear. Minivehicle makers cut their output by 56.2 percent in September, to 56,331, as they halted production of their old models and began building new minicars designed to meet the new rules. The new models' output will bolster production in the coming months, according to JAMA's argument.
Elsewhere, however, there is little cause for optimism.
Take trucks. Truck production fell 22.1 percent in September, to 126,136, due to weak demand at home and in the key markets of Asia. Japan's truckmakers are taking extra days off to trim bulging inventories. Mitsubishi Motors Corp., for instance, stopped its truck lines for two Mondays in October and will do so for two Mondays in November.