Time may be right, but are U.S. cars right for Japan?

DETROIT GOES TO TOKYO

October 21, 1993|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- American car manufacturers unveiled their latest efforts to breach the Japanese market yesterday at the biannual Tokyo Market show, and their timing couldn't have been better.

The sharp increase in the yen has lowered the dollar-based costs of U.S. manufacturers just as the companies themselves are getting a boost from American trade negotiators who spent the day in Tokyo hammering away at alleged unfairness in the Japanese market.

All that is missing is the cars. A recent report by the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association criticized U.S. manufacturers for failing to produce high-quality, low-cost vehicles with the smaller engine size and right-hand drive that Japanese drivers prefer.

The report drew angry denials from U.S. auto executives, but the auto show suggested otherwise. Ford and Chrysler each introduced only a single right-hand-drive U.S.-made vehicle, and General Motors, the largest U.S. automaker, introduced none.

"We haven't forgotten that this is a right-hand-drive market, and that without it, any manufacturer is competing at a disadvantage," said John Grettenberger, a GM vice president.

General Motors is addressing the problem, he said. A right-hand-drive model should be available toward the end of the decade.

Japan is in the midst of a protracted recession that has forced many to reconsider long-held buying habits in light of tight budgets. But the U.S. manufacturers left at home their most promising lower-priced offerings. None of GM's compact Saturns made it to Japan. Nor are they expected to do so for years.

Similarly, Chrysler's much-vaunted compact Neon didn't make it, either. And Chrysler's president, Robert A. Lutz, told reporters yesterday that there were no plans to bring the Neon here in the future.

General Motors emphasized a $75,000 Cadillac, the Concours, which is larger than all but the biggest cars seen on Japanese roads, and Chrysler highlighted its $100,000 sports car, the Viper.

Though hardly show-stoppers, there were some minor successes from the Big Three at the show. Chrysler introduced a right-hand version of its popular sports utility vehicle, the Cherokee, but its basic design dates back nearly two decades. It has sold about 3,500 cars, a figure that Mr. Lutz characterized as unsatisfactory. The car drew scant crowds at the press opening, while other new recreation-style vehicles from Japanese and European manufacturers with radically different styling were mobbed.

Ford introduced a right-hand-drive version of a two-door coupe, the Probe, made in the United States in a venture with Japan's Mazda.

General Motors also displayed an Astro van, made in Baltimore, that sells for just under $50,000 here. Although expectations for success were muted, GM executives say the Astro van has, unexpectedly, found a limited but real niche. About 1,000 have sold this year, and enthusiasts have emerged.

"Uhmmm, I like this car -- I think this car is very nice," said Toshikazu Yamada, who momentarily abandoned work on a local television news program to come over to the GM exhibit with a friend and climb in and out of the van repeatedly.

The cost, he said, isn't bad for a vehicle its size -- perhaps a few thousand dollars too high. There are, however, some problems in using it in Japan. "It is very big," he said.

Then, mapping a space out on the display-room floor, he added: "Parking. Very small." Getting up and starting to walk away, he checked to make sure that a correct impression had been left: "Nice car."

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