TOKYO - Japanese new-vehicle sales are off to a good start in 2004.
Sales rose 6.3 percent to 404,217 units in January amid signs that Japan's economy is improving.
The economy is estimated to have grown by more than 5 percent on an annualized basis in the fourth quarter of 2003, the seventh consecutive quarter of growth.
Unemployment in December fell to 4.9 percent, the lowest level since June 2001. The rate was 5.2 percent in November.
Mid-sized passenger vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty trucks did especially well in January.
Sales of the so-called "standard-sized" cars surged 35.9 percent to 85,357 units. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks soared 43.2 percent to 13,065.
All truckmakers recorded double-digit sales gains in the medium- and heavy-duty categories.
Strict new diesel emissions regulations have encouraged company fleet buyers to shift to less-polluting trucks.
Honda's redesigned Odyssey minivan led the rise in standard-sized sales vehicles, defined as passenger vehicles over 185 inches long and powered by an engine more than 2.0 liters.
A string of updated models helped sales of 660cc minivehicles climb 9.7 percent to 131,911.
Four minis were among Japan's 10 best sellers in January, including the top two positions.
Suzuki's Wagon R minicar was Japan's best-selling vehicle in January. The Wagon R was No. 1 from 1999 to 2001, but lost the title to the Toyota Corolla in 2003 and the Honda Fit in 2002.
Sales of compact cars - sized between minivehicles and standard-sized cars - dipped by 13.3 percent to 130,405 in January. The Japan Automobile Dealers Association attributed the decline to a lack of fresh models.
Four of Japan's Big 5 carmakers gained in January. Honda, the only member of the group to decline in 2003, reported a sales increase of 7.9 percent.
Only Mitsubishi Motors Corp. among the five majors lost ground in January. Mitsubishi's sales plunged 23.5 percent.
Import sales dipped 1.3 percent. General Motors group sales soared 40.5 percent, led by the Japanese-built Chevrolet Cruze that was jointly developed by GM and Suzuki. Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler group sales declined 10.2 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively.