Toyota Aqua (Prius c in many overseas markets)

Toyota Aqua (Prius c in many overseas markets)

One of the biggest untold stories of 2012 is a passenger vehicle sales boom in Japan that just keeps accelerating.

The recovery is so strong that on present form, the market will surpass five million units by the end of the year. That's quite a bounce from the 34-year low of 4,210,220 cars, mini-cars and mini-trucks sold in 2011.

I've been looking at various OEMs' results for calendar H1 and apart from poor old MMC, it's all good. Why is Mitsubishi Motors fairing so poorly? Simple: it is the Fiat SpA of Japan. By that I mean that MMC's management appears to want to conserve cash at all costs (pun intended). Meanwhile, rivals continue to invest and reap the rewards brought by a constant stream of fresh products.

The biggest winner in a Japanese market up 47% in the first half of 2012 is Toyota. Brand sales are up a stellar 88% YoY to 811,643 units. It's the number two brand that most impresses me, though. Thanks mostly to the N-Box micro passenger van and the B-segment *Fit hatchback, Honda (+81%) has managed to sell 413,382 passenger vehicles in H1, a whopping 95,385 more than Japan's new three brand, Nissan (H1 sales: +31%). As at 30 June 2011, Nissan was 14,677 units ahead of Honda so you can see how impressive Honda's year-on-year turnaround has been.

Daihatsu has also had a good 2012, its tally at the half-way point coming in at 315,173 (+59%). That compares to 317,997 for Nissan so when the numbers for July come in, TMC's Osaka-based subsidiary will have pushed Nissan down into fourth place.

Suzuki outsold Nissan by some 6,000 vehicles in June, making it the fourth most popular brand. Don't be shocked if Nissan ends 2012 in fifth place: it's presently only 24,481 sales ahead of Suzuki. Nissan's best selling model is the Serena. This minivan, the leader in its size segment, managed 53,106 registrations in the first half of the year.

The problem for Nissan is not just its lack of fresh Kei-class cars and mini-trucks but the decision taken a few years back to give up on building the March (Micra) in Japan and instead bring it in from Thailand. This has been an absolute gift to not just Honda but also to Toyota - the new-shape Vitz (Yaris) is being outsold two-to-one by the Honda Fit but TMC has nonetheless seen a respectable 64,786 (-2% YoY) units of the model registered so far year. Micra sales totalled just 23,213 units in H1, a YoY decline of 14%.

After Toyota, Honda, Daihatsu and Nissan comes Suzuki, with a YoY rise of just 39% to 293,516. The Wagon R is still selling strongly but Honda's N-Box has muscled into the Kei-class segment and the little Suzuki is the main casuality.

Mazda has ongoing difficulties in the US and Europe that the new-ish CX-5 seems to be starting to fix, but it managed only a 38% YoY rise in Japan for H1. Still, it's on track for over 200,000 home market sales this year, if the 104,927 units for the first half can be trusted as a guide.

Fuji Heavy's Subaru brand also under-performed in the year to the end of June, with total sales of 66,076 (+25%), but it says much about how far MMC has plummeted that it ended H1 in eighth place and nearly 7,000 units behind Subaru.

So which brands were ranked ninth and tenth? Volkswagen (28,896, +20%), then BMW (19,284, +25%). Where is Lexus? Where indeed. If Toyota hasn't already got started on a restyled Aqua for the Japanese market, it should do so.

*Even counting Kei-class mini-vehicles, the Fit was Japan's best selling vehicle in H1, its 133,335 sales firmly ahead of the Toyota Aqua (128,243), Daihatsu Mira (126,222) and Toyota Prius (104,872), with the Honda N-Box (103,841) rounding out the top five. If you're wondering about Japan's long-time top-selling vehicle,  the Suzuki Wagon R managed 99,938 sales which was still enough to give it sixth place.

Author: Glenn Brooks