In December 2010, vehicle sales in Japan (287,851 units) suddenly fell to levels below those of a surging Brazilian market (381,498) for the first time. And while equivalent numbers for the Brazilian market are yet to be announced, car registrations in Japan sank by over 20% in January. This makes it almost a certainty that the country will, for the second month running, surrender its place as the world’s third largest market. Make no mistake, Japan remains a major market, as 4.96 million vehicle sales in 2010 (Brazil: 3.3 million units, up 11% year-on-year) attest, but the cars that consumers are now buying and the brands that are succeeding in such a troubled climate make for interesting analysis.
The most popular car in Japan last year was the Toyota Prius, made up by the combined totals of the second (Prius EX) and third-generation (Prius) models. With over 315,000 units sold, the Prius even managed to break the 20-year record of close on 300,000 Toyota Corollas sold in 1990, a year when the total market was 7.78 million cars and trucks.
Mitsubishi managed to pull ahead of Subaru in 2010
As has long been the case, Toyota utterly dominates vehicle sales at home. Its total for 2010 was 1,411,886 cars (market share: 34%,) plus a further 476,235 cars and mini-vehicles (11.3%) sold by Daihatsu. The number two brand for the second year running was Honda (600,157), followed by Nissan (564,048), Suzuki (482,729), Daihatsu and in sixth position, Mazda (195,157). While none of these positions changed over the order seen for 2009, Mitsubishi (131,856) managed to improve its rank to seventh, having lost that place to Subaru (122,650) in the previous year.
Much of Toyota’s strength in 2010 can be explained by a package of government incentives for hybrid cars. While these expired in September, so strong was the momentum built up by the Prius that its position as the country’s best seller was never in doubt: the second placed Suzuki Wagon R managed only 195,105 registrations, with the Daihatsu Tanto, another 660 Kei-class model, taking third place (191,391).
Volkswagen was the fastest rising brand in Japan last year
It’s no surprise to see mini-cars and hybrids selling well in Japan, but the received wisdom that luxury models and foreign brands are relatively rare is no longer true. The most improved brand in 2010 was Volkswagen, which managed to sell an impressive 46,704 cars, a year-on-year gain of 23% in a market that rose by 7.3%.
Also of note was the number of Lexus cars and crossovers sold last year. Why Nissan (Infiniti) and Honda (Acura) continue to keep their premium divisions out of the home market when over 33,000 Lexus vehicles were sold there in 2010 is puzzling. For the record, Lexus also surpassed BMW (32,426) for the first time in Japan.
The first month of 2011 has seen a dramatic upset for Toyota
Last year might have been good for Lexus and especially so for the Toyota brand too, but the first month of 2011 has seen a dramatic upset for Japan’s number one manufacturer: Honda’s Fit (Jazz) took the top spot in January. Toyota’s all-new Vitz (Yaris) range, which, unlike the Fit, does not offer a hybrid variant, had been expected to easily vault into the number one position in its first full month on the market. Could small hybrid cars suddenly be Japan’s new trend? The answer will be revealed over the coming months.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.
Glenn Brooks is a regular contributor to AutomotiveWorld.com. A former editor and news editor for various specialist automotive titles and newswires, he now specialises in future vehicle programme research as well as OEM, production and product analysis. email@example.com