TOKYO - New-vehicle sales in Japan slipped 0.3 percent last year to 5,868,502, marking the third consecutive year of lower sales and the second straight year below 6 million units.
The market pulled in different directions. Sales of minivehicles, cars and trucks with engines 660cc or smaller, surged 21.2 percent over 1998 to account for 32 percent of the market. But sales of standard light vehicles dropped below 4 million units for the first time since 1984.
Import sales rose marginally against the tide. However, it was another awful year for commercial-truck sales.
The yearlong sales boom in minivehicles was because of a flurry of new models introduced in October 1998, following a slight change in the regulations governing minivehicles' exterior size. In addition, consumers were cautious because of Japan's continued economic malaise and record high unemployment.
That led car buyers to choose minivehicles for their lower prices and operating costs.
Sales of medium- and heavy-duty trucks slid 6.9 percent from 1998's dismal showing, to 78,711, the first time in 34 years that the segment has fallen below 80,000 units. The segment mirrors underlying economic trends.
In December alone, total vehicle sales slipped 0.6 percent to 442,052.
Among individual carmakers, the winners and losers largely were divided into those who did offer minis in their lineup and those who did not.
There were exceptions, of course. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. sells both minivehicles and medium- and heavy-duty commercial trucks. Mitsubishi's 1999 sales fell 2.5 percent to 585,707 despite a 12.2 percent improvement in mini sales.
On the other hand, minivehicle specialist and market leader Suzuki Motor Corp.'s sales rose 11.6 percent, while truckmaker Isuzu Motors Ltd.'s sales dropped 11.9 percent.
The split fortunes of the industry were seen best at Toyota Motor Corp.
Toyota's own sales fell 2.7 percent to 1,664,483. But at minivehicle specialist Daihatsu Motor Corp., which is owned 52 percent by Toyota, sales rose 19.5 percent to 522,528.
Including Daihatsu, Toyota was up 1.8 percent to 2,187,011.
With minis accounting for one-third of the market, Toyota finally was able to attain its goal of reclaiming a 40 percent market share. Excluding minis, which Toyota does not build, its share rose to 41.7 percent from 39.4 percent in 1998.
Including minis and Daihatsu, though, Toyota posted a 1999 market share of 37.3 percent.
Rival Nissan Motor Co. fared much worse - its sales dropped 14.4 percent to 773,651. That yielded a market share of 13 percent when minis are included, and 19.4 percent without. The latter figure is a record low for any full year.
Sales at Nissan affiliate Nissan Diesel Motor Co. dropped 15.1 percent to 16,153.
Among imports, DaimlerChrysler continued to rule the roost with sales of 53,608. But the Mercedes brand was the reason. Mercedes sales jumped 25.7 percent over 1998 to 53,474, while Chrysler sales slid 23.3 percent to 6,377.
The second-largest import seller was Volkswagen Group, with sales of 53,608, up 6.4 percent.