TOKYO - New-vehicle sales in Japan rose 2.4 percent in January to 373,791 units, the industry's second gain in the past three months.
The rise was relatively broad-based, with sales increasing for passenger cars, light trucks, buses and minivehicles. But sales of imports and medium- and heavy-duty trucks fell.
Amid mixed signs of economic recovery in Japan, some analysts said the January sales rise could foreshadow further gains in the coming months.
'Clearly, the economy is showing signs of recovery,' said Takaki Nakanishi, auto analyst at Merrill Lynch Japan in Tokyo. He cited the surging Japanese stock market, where a rally in Internet-related stocks pushed the Nikkei average to close above 20,000 on Feb. 9 for the first time since July 31, 1997.
'Individual investors are active in the market right now, and I believe they're making money,' Nakanishi said. 'Also, cars are aging, so if people feel they have more money, they may want to replace their cars.'
To be sure, not all of the economic signs are good. Unemployment edged up in December to 4.5 percent from 4.4 percent in November, the first rise in six months. Housing starts also dropped.
If, as expected, the economy shrank in the October-December quarter, it would be the second quarterly drop in a row. By the textbook definition, Japan would have slid back into recession.
Nakanishi said dealers appeared to be offering bargains as they sought to book sales before the March 31 end of the fiscal year. He pointed to strong sales in several previously weak segments.
Nakanishi predicted flat to higher sales in the current quarter.
Among individual makers, Toyota Motor Corp. fared particularly well in January. Including sales of its Daihatsu Motor Co. subsidiary, a minivehicle specialist, Toyota's sales rose 9.4 percent to 145,498.
Excluding Daihatsu, Toyota's sales rose 13.4 percent to 108,167. That amounted to a 43.5 percent share of the market, excluding minivehicles.
Sales of minivehicles, which are cars and trucks with engines smaller than 660cc, rose 1.8 percent to 125,358. Unusually, the mini segment was outperformed by sales of regular-sized passenger cars, which rose 4.4 percent to 170,894 units.
Import sales slipped 3.5 percent to 15,355, weighed down by a 50.7 percent plunge in so-called reverse imports, Japanese cars built abroad and brought back to Japan. Buoyed by a 22 percent increase by Volkswagen Group, sales of so-called pure imports rose 4.3 percent to 14,232.