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.