While American-branded cars have historically struggled in Japan, Jeep, the maker of rugged-looking sport utility vehicles, looks to be gaining popularity, particularly among younger buyers.
Jeep sales in the Asian nation are expected to rise this year to more than 15,000 units, Hitoshi Ushikubo, the head of sales at Fiat Chrysler Japan, said in an interview Monday, up from 13,588 in 2020. Fiat Chrysler Japan has yet to be officially merged with the Japan office of Peugeot SA, which will bring it under the new Stellantis NV umbrella.
Shoppers in Japan have typically opted for smaller cars with high fuel efficiency, one reason why Ford Motor Co. ended up quitting the country in 2016. But Jeep has managed to retain a loyal customer base. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, more young people are taking an interest in the vehicles, drawn by their ability to handle all sorts of outdoor terrain, which helps with avoiding public transport.
Despite the pandemic, Jeep's Japan sales notched a 1.7 percent increase in 2020 to reach a record level for a seventh consecutive year.
“We’ve made efforts to fit with the Japanese market” by rolling out cars with right-hand drive, unlike General Motors and Ford, Ushikubo said. “Young people are looking for cars that allow them to present a part of their character,” he said, adding that a strong social media presence has also helped the brand.
Jeep sold 1,925 cars in March, 36 percent higher than the same month of 2020, which was impacted by COVID-19, with the Wrangler and Renegade marques the most popular, according to a statement Tuesday. Jeep ranked third last year among imported SUV brands in Japan.
Tsubasa Imai, who bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee a few months ago, is one satisfied customer. “I like outdoor activities and I was looking for a car that has high horsepower and can carry a lot of baggage,” the 24-year-old said. There also aren’t too many cars in Japan that can tow a boat as well as look cool, he said.
Fiat Chrysler Japan CEO Pontus Häggström rolled out a rapid expansion plan early this year that leans heavily on building out Jeep's dealer network to at least 100 outlets in Japan through 2023, from more than 80 currently.
The country is now the top buyer of Wranglers outside North America and is the brand's sixth biggest market in the world, Häggström noted at the time.
Jeep's success in the country underscores how a U.S. automaker can thrive in Japan with the right product and sales network. As Jeep surged ahead in the import sales rankings, GM scaled back its Japan lineup to Cadillac and just two models from Chevrolet, the Corvette and Camaro.
The Japanese arm of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles expects to introduce new models for the Grand Cherokee, Compass and Gladiator this year. Keeping to that schedule may however depend on the availability of chips, Ushikubo said.
Hans Greimel of Automotive News contributed to this report.