TOKYO -- Japan's new-vehicle sales in April fell 6.0 percent from a year earlier to 379,280, marking the first decline in four months.
The drop was led by three of Japan's Big 5 automakers: Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.
Sales rose modestly at Toyota Motor Corp. and sharply at Mazda Motor Corp.
The overall decline was attributed to sluggish sales of compact cars, light trucks and minivehicles with engines of less than 660cc. Imports also slipped. Combined, those declines more than offset higher sales of regular-sized cars, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, and buses.
Honda sales fell for the seventh straight month, plunging 31.3 percent in April. The Fit compact, Japan's best seller in 2002 and for January and March, ran out of gasoline. The Fit's April sales slid 27.7 percent to 12,730, taking it to No. 4 on the top 10 list.
|April's top 10|
|1. Toyota Wish||14,549||6. Daihatsu Mira*||11, 231|
|2. Toyota Corolla||13,640||7. Suzuki Alto*||11,168|
|3. Daihatsu Move*||13,196||8. Honda Life*||10,415|
|4. Honda Fit||12,730||9. Nissan Cube||7,504|
|5. Suzuki Wagon R*||11,360||10. Toyota ist||6,917|
|Source: Automotive News|
Worse, high-margin cars for Honda such as the Odyssey and Stream minivans faced a hard sell, coming under pressure from their rivals such as the Wish, which Toyota launched in January.
To give those sluggish models life, Honda on May 8 came up with special versions of the Odyssey and Stream, which offer features such as special body colors, a sporty grill and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
That could be a stopgap strategy until Honda unveils a fully redesigned Odyssey, expected by year end.
Nissan special versions
Nissan has made a bold move in the same way: Offer special versions of 11 models from the March and Cube compacts to the Elgrand minivan and to a luxury Cedric. Officially, these are commemorative versions designed to honor the company's 70th anniversary.
With features such as a low-priced electronic toll collection system, those models, launched on May 8, aim to reverse an 11.9 percent drop in April at Nissan, the first decline in 13 months. The tumble was caused partly by the March compact, whose sales dropped by nearly half.
Mitsubishi's sales also shrank 5.2 percent because the Colt compact, launched in November, has lost momentum. Sales of the latecomer into the fiercely competitive small-car market totaled 3,133, less than half of the car's monthly sales target of 7,000. Mitsubishi is hoping its re-engineered Grandis minivan, which debuted Saturday, May 17, will give its sales a boost.
Meanwhile, Toyota sales edged up 1.9 percent. Three Toyota models - the Wish minivan, Corolla sedan and ist compacts - made the top 10 list. Mazda also gained 6.9 percent, cashing in on the Atenza, known as the Mazda6 abroad, and Demio.
Small cars decline
By type of vehicles, compact cars, the biggest segment, led the overall decline. Sales of small cars slid 11.2 percent, while sales of light trucks contracted 7.4 percent. Minivehicles fell 5.0 percent.
On the other hand, sales jumped 17.1 percent for regular-sized cars and 55.4 percent for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. Demand for trucks has been spurred by strict diesel emissions regulations to be introduced in October. The rule has encouraged corporate customers to shift to greener trucks, helping to give all of Japan's four major truckmakers double-digit growth.
In minivehicle sales, Suzuki Motor Corp., Japan's No.1 minivehicle maker, gained 0.7 percent. Rival Daihatsu Motor Co. gained 9.2 percent. To revitalize the Wagon R, once a top seller but now ranked 5th, Suzuki started in April offering economical versions of the minicar.
Imports fell 8.6 percent, and each of the U.S. Big 3 lost ground. Sales slumped 34.2 percent for the Chrysler group, 52.8 percent for General Motors and 9.2 percent for the Ford group.
To rev up stalling sales of the Chevrolet brand, which plunged 46 percent, Suzuki, owned 20 percent by GM, will start selling 2004 Chevrolet models - except the Corvette - through its outlets.
Suzuki's outlets total more than 1,000, but it hasn't decided how many of them will handle the Chevrolet brand.