TOKYO -- Japanese car buyers want either the lowest price tag possible, or something special.
That is why luxury cars, led by imports, and minivehicles continued to dominate Japan's new-vehicle market in the first quarter. Minivan sales remained strong, and SUV sales picked up. But plain-jane mainstream sedans struggled.
Total new-vehicle sales edged up 0.5 percent to 1,761,562 in the January-March quarter, compared with a year earlier.
High-end imports did much better.
Mercedes-Benz sales climbed 21.6 percent to 13,460. BMW sales rose 16.7 percent to 11,521. Sales of Lexus cars, which debuted last August, totaled 5,643, up 7.1 percent.
Other import brands that tallied double-digit sales gains in the quarter included Bentley, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce, Porsche and Citroen. Porsche dealers report a three-month waiting list for the Cayenne SUV.
In line with a trend that favors more-distinctive brands, Hummer outsold Cadillac and Saab in the General Motors stable. In general, though, neither GM nor Ford Motor Co. has been able to cash in on the strong Japanese import market.
Sales of all GM brands fell 11.5 percent to 4,234. Sales of imported Chevrolets and Opels dropped more than 40 percent each.
Sales of Ford brands fell 17.4 percent to 6,057. Its volume import brands of Volvo, Ford and Jaguar all fell by double digits.
Import sales overall rose 2.1 percent to 70,889. But that included sliding sales of so-called reimports, or Japanese vehicles built abroad and sold in Japan. So-called pure imports jumped 4.1 percent to 65,819.
At the other end of the market, sales of minivehicles - cars and trucks with 660cc engines - rose 4.3 percent to 593,615. Minivehicles thus made up 34.4 percent of the light-vehicle market.
March mini madness
March is usually the strongest sales month in Japan. It was doubly so for minivehicles this year.
Minivehicle sales totaled a record 276,977 in March, up 4.1 percent from a year ago.
Minivehicle sales used to be led by minitrucks, used by farmers, fishermen and small shops for deliveries. No more. Sales of minitrucks are well below their records of 1989.
Today's minis are sold to stylish young women on limited budgets and retirees who want a vehicle they think they can control.
Among Japanese brands in the first quarter, Subaru continued its slide. Sales of the Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. brand slumped 14.3 percent to 70,665.
On the other hand, Mitsubishi Motors Corp.'s rebound picked up steam. Its sales rose 14.7 percent to 93,349 on robust sales of the Outlander crossover, which comes to the U.S. market in the autumn, and the i minicar.
You may e-mail James B. Treece at [email protected]