TOKYO -- Sales of new cars, trucks and buses in Japan appear set to remain largely sluggish this year after inching up 0.4 percent in 2004, leading most Japanese automakers to look for much of their growth abroad.
Auto sales in the world's second-biggest car market totalled 5.853 million units last year, lifted by a 4.8 percent rise in demand for 660cc minivehicles to a record 1.891 million units, industry data showed on Wednesday.
Excluding minivehicles, which get preferential tax treatment, sales fell 1.6 percent to 3.962 million units as demand for passenger cars declined 0.8 percent and that for trucks fell 5.8 percent, according to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association.
Demand for automobiles in Japan has stayed just below 6 million for the past seven years and is expected to stagnate as the population ages and the birthrate falls.
With little growth expected at home, most Japanese auto makers are counting on overseas markets -- especially emerging economies like China, India and Eastern Europe -- for expansion.
Japan's top automakers are also advancing in mature markets such as North America and Europe, where they have been chipping away at local brands' market share.
"New models launched recently should help sales (in Japan) somewhat this year," said Tatsuo Yoshida, an auto analyst at Deutsche Securities. "But the real growth will be overseas."
Analysts say the market for non-minivehicles should get a slightly bigger boost this year thanks to the launch of a number of new models in late 2004, including five from Nissan Motor Co. alone since September.
Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. are set to get a boost from the remodeling of high-volume cars like the Vitz and Fit subcompacts.
Last month, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association forecast overall auto sales will rise 0.7 percent to 5.87 million units in 2005.
The recent debut of luxury sedans such as Nissan's Fuga, Toyota's Mark X and Honda's Legend should also improve the product mix, although not by much, given the models' limited volumes.
In particular, Toyota, Japan's top automaker, will be aiming to nudge profitability higher with the start of its high-end Lexus channel in August. The brand, first launched in 1989, is sold in 60 countries and is the best-selling luxury marque in the United States.
Toyota sold 1.739 million cars in Japan last year, up 2.0 percent, grabbing 44 percent of the market excluding minivehicles.
Honda's sales, excluding minicars, rose 2.7 percent, while they declined 4.9 percent at second-ranked Nissan due to a dearth of new models for most of the year.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp., reeling from financial problems and a scandal over covering up defects, suffered a 41 percent fall in 2004. Mazda Motor Corp. posted a fall of 1.2 percent in regular car sales.
For December only, sales of minivehicles grew 4.3 percent to 146,423 units, the Japan Mini Vehicle Association said, while sales of other cars, trucks and buses rose 2.6 percent. Overall, sales expanded 3.2 percent to 449,547 vehicles last month.