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Global Economics

Japan's Carmakers Outrun Rivals in China

Over the past year, Japanese automakers have surprised the global car industry by outperforming both European and U.S. rivals as a group in the hyper-kinetic Chinese auto market, the fastest-growing in the world. Japan's six major auto manufacturers operating on the mainland—Honda (HMC), Toyota Motor (TM), Nissan (NSANY), Mazda (MZDAF), Mitsubishi (MMTOF), and Suzuki—have grabbed roughly 27% of the market. Plus, they're coming on strong in 2006 with new product rollouts and capacity expansions (see, 11/21/05, "Japan's Carmakers Find China's Fast Lane").

Take Honda and Toyota. On Sept. 27, Honda will start selling its RL and TL versions of its Acura luxury sedan. Honda, which enjoys a 5.7% share of the Chinese passenger car market, set up its first joint venture with Guangzhou Auto Group back in 1998 about a half-decade before Toyota and Nissan became serious about the mainland. It just opened a new factory in Guangzhou in southern China that will have an annual capacity of 120,000 vehicles and make the Accord.

In addition, Honda already sells Chinese versions of the Fit and City compacts, plus the Odyssey minivan and the Civic, with Guangzhou Auto and another joint venture with Dongfeng Motor, the mainland's third biggest domestic manufacturer (see, 8/21/06, "Nice Fit").

GOING HIGH-END. With the RL and TL Acura sedans, Honda is now aiming at the luxury segment and at "rich, high-end consumers," said Honda President Takeo Fukui while attending a press event back in Tokyo regarding the company's latest environmentally friendly concept cars (see, 9/23/05, "Acura's Introduction to Luxury"). Both will be imported to China, says Fukui. "We will start off with the Japan-made RL and the North American-made TL models," he says.

The Acura RL and TL sedans to be sold in China will be similar to the models now sold in the U.S. that retail there for about $45,000 and $33,000, respectively, according to a Honda spokesman in Shenzhen, where the Japanese automaker will launch its first Acura dealership. The exact retail price in China won't be released until Sept. 27. But sticker prices likely will be 40% higher than in the U.S. due to import duties

Meanwhile, Toyota is aiming to ramp up its China sales 60% this year to 290,000 units and reach a 10% market share by 2010 (see, 3/9/06, "Toyota in China: Full Speed Ahead"). Toyota's current market share is about 4.5%, according to the first-half estimates by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

HUGE ASPIRATIONS. Recent additions to Toyota's China car lineup include the hybrid-engine Prius (see, 5/17/06, "Toyota Prius"), the new Camry, the redesigned RAV4 and Previa, and the Lexus ES350 and IS300 luxury vehicles.

The Lexus LS460 will make its China debut in November (see, 9/5/06, "2006 Lexus IS 350"). Toyota Motor President Katsuaki Watanabe said at a press conference in Tokyo in late September that, “A strengthening and expanding product line-up is critical for continued growth [in China].”

With the exception of Honda, Japanese automakers were relative latecomers to the game in China. Now it looks as if they have aspirations to dominate.

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