TOKYO -- General Motors business soured in the United States in 2008, but in Japan, its been downhill for more than a decade. This year, GM is even pulling out of the Tokyo auto show.
Still, the Detroit carmaker hopes business finally has hit bottom in its toughest market.
Rick Brown, president of GM Japan, wants to double sales here in three years by expanding the paltry dealer network and bringing in new models. Given GMs meager Japanese base, those ambitions are modest -- but still may prove to be overly optimistic.
GMs local volume has plunged below 2,000 units a year from 50,000 in 1996. Sales points have dropped to 47 from 73 in 2005, when Opel was being sold here.
The new goal is to lift sales to 3,000 units by 2011, Brown said in an interview last week. That includes opening two outlets a year to boost GMs store count to as high as 60.
We want to start building up to a significant level, Brown said.
Achieving that wont be easy. Japanese domestic vehicle sales have been in decline for years. And American brands are plagued by image problems, compounded by talk of Detroit 3 bankruptcies.
Brown said the key to success will be launching products here, such as the compact Chevrolet Aveo, the sporty Chevrolet Camaro, new luxury cars and more SUVs.
Volume needs to go up in order for them to make money, Brown said. Were freshening the lineup. Were introducing new body styles and derivatives that people havent seen before.
GM dealers handle mainly Cadillac, Saab, Hummer and Chevrolet. But GMC, Buick, Pontiac and GM-Daewoo models also surface as vehicles that are unhomologated, not converted to Japanese vehicle standards.
In the 1990s, GM hopelessly pursued a mass volume game in Japan. Now the automaker sticks to a niche brand strategy playing to the appeal of American individualism and extravagance.
Recent and upcoming changes include:
Selling the Corvette through Chevy dealers in addition to premium dealers.
Introducing the redesigned Camaro, possibly later this year.
Bringing in the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon by summer and the CTS Coupe in 2010.
Putting the Saab 9-3X in showrooms this year.
Launching the Saab 9-5 and 9-4X in 2011.
Replacing the discontinued Chevrolet TrailBlazer with a wider range of SUVs.
GM also hopes to complement its premium products in 2010 with the Aveo, a small car assembled by GMs South Korean affiliate, GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co. But compact American cars are a hard sell in Japan, and Brown doesnt see volume going beyond 500 units a year.
Never friendly to American cars in the best of times, Japan is getting even worse, particularly amid swirling speculation about Detroit 3 bankruptcies.
Ford sold only 3,818 vehicles here last year, compared with 23,273 in 1996. Chrysler and Dodge combined moved 5,514, down from 17,404 that same year. Including nonhomologated and independently imported vehicles, GM sold 2,876 units last year, down from 71,019.
GM is doing little to endear itself to finicky Japanese customers by dropping out of this years Tokyo auto show, scheduled Oct. 23 to Nov. 8. GM hopes to spend the money on strengthening its dealership network. But the cost-cutting move is likely to raise eyebrows here.
I fought the decision to the bitter end, Brown said. If we want more money to spend on marketing, we just have to sell more cars. Thats the bottom line. We have to prove ourselves.