Visitors skeptical at GM showroom


July 01, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- General Motors Corp., which has had trouble cracking the Japanese market, tried something new yesterday.

It opened a glittery, temporary showroom in a busy section of Tokyo -- one of the first tangible byproducts of President Bush's controversial January trip, which was designed to sell cars and create "jobs, jobs, jobs" for American workers.

But judging by reactions of visitors, GM cars still are going to be a hard sell in Japan. Among the barriers: price, size and quality.

"It looks really terrific," 26-year-old Kouzo Iwasaki said, wriggling into the seat of a white Camaro convertible with a sticker price of 4,500,000 yen, about $36,000. "But I know that underneath, it's poorly made."

Mr. Iwasaki's remarks reflect a belief that persists among Japanese that the Big Three U.S. carmakers will never catch up with their rivals here in quality and reliability.

GM has been searching for new ways to combat such beliefs since Mr. Bush's visit, when Japanese automakers agreed to help boost sales of U.S.-made cars here from 35,000 a year to about 55,000.

This spring, GM ran a series of expensive, full-page ads in Japanese newspapers. The ads directly compared GM models with specific Japanese models, a step companies rarely take here.

Most visitors to the GM showroom yesterday agreed that the six cars on display looked great. But each visitor had a reason not to buy.

"They're so big, it's really wonderful," Ko Kasuga, 24, said. "I'd love to drive one just once, but, of course, a big car isn't very practical in Japan. It'd be too hard to find a place to park."

Cars on display included a red Pontiac GrandAm sedan at 2,800,000 yen, about $22,400, and a dark green Cadillac Seville at 7,450,000 yen, about $59,600.

Those prices range from about 50 percent to more than 100 percent higher than prices in the United States. The sticker price has been one of the chief obstacles for U.S. automakers, who have never managed to sell enough cars here to set prices that would compete with those of comparable Japanese cars.

Most of the attention at the car show seemed to focus on the Camaro and on an ultralight "concept car" that uses aerospace body materials and other advanced technology to keep its weight down.

"Some of these materials are 10 years from being economically feasible for production-line cars," Jim Lutz, the ultralight's program manager, explained to a visitor. "Others, like the lightweight tires, are likely to be on production cars soon."

The showroom is on the underground level of a five-story building owned by an affiliate of Toyota, the world's second-biggest carmaker after GM.

Visitor traffic was heavier upstairs, on the four floors where Toyota displays dozens of its models. But the GM showroom attracted a steady stream of visitors from the shopping mall outside its door.

"We've been trying for a long time to get a space like this," said Sachiyo Tateno, a member of GM's public relations staff for Japan. "During the Bush visit, Toyota became more amenable, and as soon as this space was available, we rented it."

The showroom isn't GM's for keeps, though. It will be open for 34 days, ending Aug. 2, under the name GM Summer House.

After that, Japanese who want to check out GM cars will have to go to showrooms operated by Yanase Motors, GM's sole import agent here. Even Summer House visitors will have to talk to Yanase if they want to deal.

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