Blog: Glenn BrooksToyota sales in Japan fall by 69%

Glenn Brooks | 13 May 2011

When was the last time an imported car made it big in Japan? Never. Which is why it's amazing to see the Nissan March (Micra) bouncing in to the number seven position in the company's home market sales for April. Gone are the days when Nissan built the March at the Oppama plant - the latest generation model is sourced from Bangna Trad in Thailand.

April was an understandably unusual month for vehicle sales in Japan. Analysts expected the numbers to be down following the natural disaster that hit the east coast of Honshu in March but few were expecting the reality of a 51% (year-on-year) plunge to only 108,824 (excluding minivehicles). Toyota suffered more than most, its sales collapsing by an astonishing 69%, while its best seller, the Prius, saw its registrations down by 82% to only 4,876 units.

Toyota will be doubly upset to see Honda (Fit) taking the top slot. Worth noting is just how far ahead of the Prius it was. Its total of 8,574 sales shows that without the lavish incentives pressed into the pockets of buyers of hybrid cars throughout 2009 and 2010, the Prius, formerly way ahead of all comers (315,421 sales in 2010 versus 195,105 for the number two Suzuki Wagon R), continues to fade.

Honda does not break out its Fit sales numbers by petrol and hybrid powertrains - a pity, as it would be enlightening to learn how many (or how few) of those 8,574 were petrol-electric cars. At any rate, the low price of the Fit versus the Prius has been a big factor in its sales success over recent months - to the Japanese, hybrid cars are attractive still, so long as they are cheap. Contrast that with the high prices that manufacturers and Toyota in particular charge for hybrids in the USA, the only other global market where such vehicles have ever found much favour.

Japan is a special case - as demographers continue to point out, this is a country where the elderly are becoming the mainstream as birth rates continue to fall and immigration remains at a trickle. So as the population shrinks at a rate which is alarming corporate Japan, car makers need to accept that the days of 4+ million annual vehicle sales are long, long gone.

In early 2011, and some months ahead of the recent natural disaster, Japan's vehicle market lost its global number four position to Brazil for the first time. China, Europe and North America plus parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific Rim have never been more important for the future profitability of Japan's car makers. But with the super-yen tearing even the mighty Toyota's profit forecasts to shreds, expect to see a lot more examples like Nissan's decision to shift build of the March small car out of Japan and into lower-cost countries.


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