TOKYO - Japan's new-vehicle sales got off to a good start in 2003, rising 3.0 percent in January from a year ago.
Every market segment except light trucks was higher in the month. Sales of regular-sized cars with engines 2.0 liters and above were up 15.3 percent; compact cars rose 5.9 percent; medium- and heavy-duty trucks, 27.2 percent; and 660cc minivehicles, 0.1 percent.
Light trucks were off 7.2 percent.
Among Japan's Big 5, Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Corp. reported higher sales. Toyota, with two cars on the top 10 sales list in January, was up 2.4 percent. Nissan's sales rose 13.0 percent while Mazda gained 13.2 percent.
Despite having the country's best-selling car, the Fit, in 2002 and for the month, Honda Motor Co. sales slumped 9.6 percent as demand for the once-popular Civic sedan, Step WGN, Stream and Odyssey minivans ran out of steam.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp., which posted the biggest loss among the Big 5 automakers last year, got off to a weak start in January with a 2.3 percent drop. Its Colt compact, introduced in November, gave a mixed performance with sales of 6,814. On the one hand, it slipped from the top 10 list, after making the list in December on sales of 9,555. On the other hand, Colts accounted for three out of every four compact cars that Mitsubishi sold in January and helped to more than double the carmaker's sales in that segment to 8,898.
With a 35 percent share, Suzuki Motor Corp. remained the dominant player in the mini segment in January. The Japan Mini Vehicles Association expects demand for all minivehicles to rise 1.1 percent this year, to 1.85 million units.
Among import brands, General Motors sales plunged 56.5 percent in January. GM will try to boost its core Chevrolet brand in Japan by selling the TrailBlazer SUV through Suzuki showrooms, beginning this month.
GM owns a 20 percent stake in Suzuki, and the two sell a jointly developed compact SUV, the Cruze, but its sales have stalled.
Ford Motor group sales slipped 2.0 percent as stronger sales of the Land Rover and Volvo failed to offset a decline in imported and Japanese-built Fords. DaimlerChrysler fell 6.1 percent, dragged down by Chryslers and Smart compacts.
The sales outlook remains overshadowed more by Japan's shaky economy than by a Gulf war threat. Consumers' buying power has been eroded by falling wages, while widespread deflation has shoppers expecting ever-lower prices.
The average pay of Japanese workers in all industries in 2002 fell 2.3 percent from 2001, the largest drop since the data began to be tallied in the current format in 1991, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
Adjusted for falling consumer prices, real wages still slid 1.2 percent. Seasonally adjusted overtime hours at manufacturing companies, a key component of disposable income in Japan, also fell 0.8 percent in December from November, continuing a three-month slide.