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Market trends: Japanese still not in the fast lane

The general perception of the Japanese car industry is almost universally positive.

Toyota, in particular, can apparently do no wrong, from overtaking GM as the world’s biggest car company to becoming synonymous with hybrid technology and environmental awareness.

It may come as a surprise, therefore, that Japanese penetration in the UK is growing only very gradually – and, in the case of Toyota, not at all.

In fact, looking back over the five year period 2003 – 2008 (see table), only Honda and Mazda have experienced significant growth, while overall Japanese penetration has risen from 16.2% to 18.2%.

Given the huge investments in European production facilities, this seems like quite a limited return.

Certainly compared to the USA, where Toyota alone has 15% of the market, Europe continues to be a very tough nut to crack for the Japanese.

An interesting insight comes from comparing the fortunes of the latest Honda Civic and Toyota Auris – both ostensibly designed with Europe in mind.

The 2006 Civic caused a sensation when it was launched, as no-one could quite believe that Honda had translated the concept car looks to the road (and incidentally raised the bar for all future production concepts – now everyone expects the road version to look as good as the motor show concept).

The result was a 32% leap in sales between 2005 and 2007.

In contrast, the 2005 Auris was launched with a lot of talk about how it was European-focussed, even down to getting a new name to deal with the negative connotations of the Corolla.

However, it turned out to be a rather conservative Japanese design: just like in the 1980s, it seemed to be designed around the specification sheet, not the actual driving experience.

For example the 2.2 diesel has an impressive 177 bhp – until you discover that the stepped power delivery leaves you wanting a less powerful but more usable engine.

The result has been a sales increase of just 14% between 2004 and 2007.

It is noticeable that the Japanese products that have done best – the aforementioned Civic, the Honda Jazz and the Mazda 6 could have been designed by European companies (or in the case of Ford-influenced Mazda models, partially were).

Even Toyota’s biggest success of recent years – the originally Yaris – was a thoroughly competitive European supermini that happened to be built to Toyota quality standards.

Japanese quality and price can steamroller its way through the USA, but design-conscious Europeans still want emotional as well as rational reasons to buy.

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