Sales of minivehicles in Japan for the first half of fiscal 2006 - the full year ends on 31 March - increased 4.9% to 961,721 units, marking a record high for the first half business year, an industry body said.

The Japan Mini Vehicles Association told Kyodo News that the April-September figure showed a rise for the third straight year and that the previous record had held since 1990.

The association attributed the increase to consumers' switching to minivehicles with engines of up to 660 cc due to their fuel economy and low maintenance cost.

Sales of minivehicles may top 2m units this year for the first time, the association said.

On the other hand, domestic sales of new motor vehicles, excluding minivehicles, fell to their lowest level since 1977, the Japan Automobile Dealers Association told the news agency.

It said sales of cars fell 7.5% to 1,740,804 units for the first half of fiscal 2006. The decline was led by an 11.7% fall to 881,751 units in sales of small passenger cars with an engine capacity between 661 cc and 2000 cc, and a 6.2% drop to 563,995 units in sales of larger passenger cars.

But sales of trucks rose 5.1% to 286,942 units, showing the second consecutive yearly growth.

September sales for new vehicles, excluding minivehicles, fell 7.4% to 362,810 units, marking the 15th straight monthly decline, the association said.

Domestic sales decreased at all of the five major Japanese automakers in September, with Nissan Motor suffering the most - its sales slipped 13.6% to 66,434 units, followed by Mazda's 12.9% drop to 22,112 units.

Sales fell 11.7% to 7,180 units at Mitsubishi Motors while Honda saw a 11.5% drop to 45,653 units, and Toyota a 6.7% dip to 142,084 units.

In contrast, sales by Toyota's Lexus luxury brand - newly launched in Japan - totalled 3,019 units in September, up from the previous month's 2,038 units, Kyodo News reported.