TOKYO - After two consecutive years of falling sales in the home maket, Japan's carmakers are bravely forecasting a better 1999.
Toyota Motor Corp., for example, says its Japan sales will rise 5.2 percent, to 1.8 million. Honda Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. (Subaru) each sees its sales rising about 8 percent.
The forecasts add up to expectations that total vehicle sales will rise 5 percent to 7 percent in 1999.
Analysts are decidedly less optimistic.
The industry's forecasts are 'nonsense,' said Stephen Usher, Tokyo-based auto analyst for Jardine Fleming Securities (Asia) Ltd.
'Their forecasts are based on GDP (gross domestic product) projections that are much higher than ours,' said Peter Boardman, an analyst with Warburg Dillon Reed. His firm sees Japan's economy contracting another 1.5 percent in the fiscal year beginning April 1. The Japanese government is targeting 0.5 percent growth, but it has fallen well short of its targets in recent years.
As a result, Boardman said Japan's new-vehicle sales in the next fiscal year will total only 5.85 million, flat compared to the anticipated tally for the year that ends March 31, 1999.
Usher especially questioned expectations that sales of minivehicles, those with engines under 660cc, will rise 15 percent or more.
Minivehicle sales topped the year-earlier month in October, November and December. The minis were one of the rare strong spots in the market. But that will not continue, Usher said. 'As we get to the end of the first quarter, that story will be behind us,' he said.
In December, mini sales rose 17.5 percent to 144,825, the Japan Mini Vehicle Association said. Weak sales early in the year left mini sales for all of 1998 down a relatively modest 4.1 percent, at 1,551,330.
The strength of minicars was epitomized by Suzuki Motor Co.'s Wagon R, which was Japan's top-selling model for the year, displacing Toyota's Corolla for the first time in 30 years.
Japan's total vehicle sales in 1998 fell 12.5 percent, to 5,886,648.
Import-vehicle sales fell 24.4 percent to 275,869 as sales of Japanese cars built abroad and imported into Japan tumbled 53.0 percent to 23,804.