TOKYO -- Japanese automobile sales turned higher in January, helped by the launch of new models, but analysts said they expected car demand to be sluggish this year as a fragile economy holds consumers back from spending.
Overall auto sales, including trucks and 660 cc minivehicles, rose 3.0 percent from the previous year to 380,089 units, data from the Japan Automobile Dealers Association and Japan Mini Vehicle Association showed on Monday.
Of that, sales of passenger cars with engines over 2,000 cc climbed for the fifth straight month, by 7.1 percent to 259,661 vehicles, making up for a 0.2 percent fall in minivehicle sales.
Analysts have said car demand would probably rise from year-ago levels in the first few months of this year given especially soft demand in early 2002, when consumer sentiment was hit by the September 11 attacks in the United States.
"I expect car demand to stay roughly flat or rise only marginally at most this year," said Deutsche Securities analyst Tatsuo Yoshida.
Within the industry, Yoshida said Nissan Motor Co. should fare well as it continues to roll out new models under its "Nissan 180" expansion phase.
Ordinary car sales at Japan's third-largest automaker, which unveiled its new "Teana" luxury sedan on Monday, jumped 7.8 percent last month to 52,326 units. Nissan unveiled another high-end model, the "Skyline Coupe", less than three weeks ago.
Of the top five makers, Honda Motor Co. was alone in seeing a sales decline. Its sales, excluding minis, fell 9.4 percent to 32,779 units.
"It's going to be difficult for Honda to grow coming off a very high base last year," Yoshida said.
"But I think Honda will be able to grow slightly this year with the new Accord, as well as an expansion in imports of the MDX and Element (sport utility vehicles) from the United States," he added.
In calendar 2002 Honda logged the industry's biggest sales jump by far -- 7.9 percent, thanks to brisk demand of the Fit subcompact, Japan's best-selling car last year.
Nissan and minivehicle maker Suzuki Motor Corp. were the only other automakers to expand sales in 2002.
Other notable winners in January were Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp, which logged rises of 37 percent and 12 percent respectively.
Sales at industry leader Toyota Motor Corp., which put out the new "Wish" minivan last month, grew 2.1 percent to 107,636 units.