TOKYO -- If you sell imported cars in Japan, 2006 is shaping up as a decent year. Indeed, if you work for import brands Hummer, Jeep, or BMW Mini, you have good news to tell your bosses.
But if you sell cars in Japan for Nissan Motor Co. or Honda Motor Co., you are perplexed by how bad the 2006 Japanese market is. The economy is sound. Consumers are willing to spend on cell phones and other goods, but not your cars.
And you can't believe it when you look across town at formerly minor players such as Suzuki Motor Corp. and Daihatsu Motor Co. Those makers of 660cc minicars are enjoying a year beyond all expectations.
Japan's total new-vehicle sales fell 3.1 percent in the April-through-June second quarter, to 1,304,086 units. Excluding buses and medium- and heavy-duty trucks, sales of light-duty vehicles slid 3.5 percent, to 1,276,944.
2nd quarter hurts half
The second-quarter slip dragged down light-duty sales for the entire first half. Those fell 1.2 percent, to 3,002,102. Light-duty sales in the first quarter had edged up 0.6 percent.
Sales of all imports slipped 1.7 percent in the second quarter, to 65,161. Excluding sales of Japanese brands built abroad, though, sales of so-called pure imports were essentially flat, falling just 0.2 percent. That still left sales of pure imports up a decent 2.4 percent in the first half, to 124,029. And some import brands are enjoying strong sales.
Minicars were the big second-quarter winners.
At the start of the year, Suzuki Chairman Osamu Suzuki said he doubted that minicar sales could go beyond their strong showing of 2005, when they accounted for 33.6 percent of the entire market. Now he has changed his tune. He recently told reporters that if the second half keeps to the first half's pace, minicar sales will set a record in 2006.
Minicar sales have risen every month in 2006. In the second quarter, they rose 5.2 percent, to 478,251. First-half sales rose 4.7 percent to a record 1,071,863.
Compare that with sales of all other passenger cars, down 10.8 percent in the second quarter, to 622,122.
Minicar makers, such as Suzuki, rode the rising tide. Suzuki's second-quarter sales topped Nissan's. Suzuki's sales gained 1.9 percent, to 164,550.
Nissan sells only three minicar models, all rebadged Suzukis or Mitsubishis. While those three sold strongly, the rest of Nissan's lineup sank. The company's total sales tanked 17.0 percent, to 161,086, in the second quarter.
Likewise, a 12.4 percent gain in Honda's minicar sales couldn't rescue its second quarter. The company's total sales fell 5.8 percent, to 167,248.
Or consider Toyota. With no minicars in the lineup, combined sales for the Toyota and Lexus brands fell 4.3 percent, to 384,727.
Daihatsu, a Toyota subsidiary that specializes in minicars, had a strong quarter. Total sales rose 6.3 percent, to 150,429.
Thanks to Daihatsu and a 14.2 percent rise at truckmaking unit Hino Motors Ltd., Toyota group sales slipped only 1.3 percent, to 546,465 in the second quarter.
Contrast that with BMW group's 10.6 percent sales jump in the second quarter to 16,186. Sure, the volume is vastly different. But so is the direction.
BMW brand sales rose 9.7 percent. Sales of BMW Minis, which technically are not minicars in Japan, rose 14.1 percent.
Sales of all DaimlerChrysler AG brands gained 3.0 percent, held back by softer sales at Chrysler, Smart and Maybach. Sales of Mercedes vehicles rose 6.4 percent, and Jeep sales rose 15.6 percent.
You may e-mail James B. Treece at [email protected]