TOKYO - Encouraged by 10,000 orders in hand from Japanese buyers for the new A-class, Mercedes-Benz Japan Co. has raised its 1999 import sales target to a record 50,000-plus, a 23 percent increase from its 1998 sales, excluding gray-market sales.
That is an ambitious target. In 1998, sales of Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks, including gray-market imports, edged up only 1 percent to 42,556. Still, that was against the trend - total import sales in Japan tumbled 24.4 percent last year to 275,869.
Mercedes is not alone in raising its sights, however.
A large number of importers are predicting a rebound in their 1999 Japan sales, based on high hopes for new models and a belief that buyers who snapped up imports in the 1994-1995 years will come back to showrooms to replace their cars.
Indeed, the Japan importers' association forecasts that total import sales this year will climb 1.8 percent to 280,000, reversing two years of declines.
An association report conceded that owners are holding onto their vehicles longer than before, and corporate demand remains weak amid Japan's sagging economy. But it argued that the large number of import models which were restyled in the second half of 1998, combined with the publicity to be generated by next September's Tokyo Motor Show and the replacement demand for aging imports in owners' garages, will boost sales.
Ford Motor Co. (Japan) Ltd., for example, is counting on the Ka, which it will begin delivering to Japan buyers this month, to help it more than double its sales this year.
It is targeting import sales of 14,500, including 5,000 Kas, up from 6,565 in 1998.
After several years of pulling back from sales in Japan of cars built overseas, Honda Motor Co. is predicting it will raise its import sales almost four-fold, to 30,000. It has begun importing the Inspire/Saber, known as the Acura TL in the United States, from its Marysville, Ohio, plant, and will add the Canadian-built Odyssey minivan later in the year.
Toyota Motor Corp., meanwhile, forecast that it will sell 10,000 General Motors-built Cavaliers this year. That would be a sharp rise from the 6,796 sold in 1998. Although the GM-Toyota contract calls for Toyota to sell 10,000 a year, that has only happened once, in 1996.
Toyota spokesman Koki Konishi said greater marketing efforts will make the difference. Toyota cut the price of the 1999 model Cavalier by 14 percent on average, to as low as ¥1,530,000, or $13,540 at current exchange rates, for the S-grade coupe, effective Dec. 22. It also is offering a
0.9 percent loan to Cavalier buyers.