TOKYO - Robust sales of minivehicles were the only bright spot for Japan's automakers last month.
Overall, new-vehicle sales fell 4.3 percent to 496,224 in November, marking the 20th straight month of declining sales. Sales of minivehicles, however, rose 30.2 percent, to 169,673.
Indeed, seven of Japan's 10 top-selling cars last month were minis, which are cars and trucks with 660cc engines.
The gains came after more than a dozen models were launched Oct. 1 to comply with more stringent safety regulations for minis. The regulations also allowed minicars and trucks to grow slightly larger on the outside.
In other segments, though, Japan's market remained soft. Sales of non-mini passenger cars dropped 13.7 percent to 217,735.
Import sales fell 17.1 percent to 22,250, led by a 34.1 percent drop in Japanese cars built abroad and imported back into Japan. Imports through November total 249,498, down 24.7 percent from the same period a year ago, making it virtually certain that the segment will fail to hit 300,000 units in 1998.
Sales of medium- and heavy-duty trucks, hard hit by Japan's economic recession, slumped 26.6 percent to 5,550. Japan's gross domestic product fell by an annualized 2.6 percent in the July-September quarter. That marked the first time since World War II that Japan's economy contracted for four consecutive quarters. The government is forecasting more declines in 1999.
Among individual makers, companies that sell minivehicles did best. Those that don't, notably Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., slipped.
Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., maker of Subarus, led the industry with a 27.6 percent gain.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s sales rose 14 percent, entirely because of minicars.
Although Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s minicar sales rose, that was not enough to propel Honda's total higher. Honda sales fell 11.9 percent to 65,801. Even so, that was enough to push Honda ahead of Nissan into second place among Japanese carmakers in November, as Nissan's sales slid 11.6 percent to 63,303. It was the third month in the last 12 that Honda topped Nissan.
Not only may Nissan drop below 1 million in Japan-market sales this year; it may even fall below 900,000. Through November, Nissan's sales totaled 848,100, to Honda's 621,789.