J-Cars Lose Luster


The new McLaren MP4-12C

TOKYO (majirox news) – Road and Track magazine recently named its 10 coolest new cars coming on to the U.S.market for 2011. There isn’t a single Japanese car among them.

Moreover, according to the Associated Press, 8 of the 10 worst selling cars in the United States are Japanese and the other two are German.

Coincidentally, the Insurance Underwriters Association chose models from Kia, Hyundai and VW as the safest cars on the road today in the United States. Once again, there are no Japanese cars on the list.

It could be an interesting sign that there might be a change in perception among American consumers about Japanese cars.

“After two decades of a stagnant Japanese economic growth and a strong yen (frequently trading in the 80s and 90s per U.S. dollar), Japanese car companies have become quite cautious in their approach to product planning and marketing,” says Fred Kendall, general manager for Brandimage in Tokyo, former chief strategy officer for Nissan’s global advertising agency, and marketing manager for Toyota and Lexus in the United States. “Japanese companies are taking fewer risks and are acting more conservatively and less creatively — the products reflect this approach.”

He noted in the 80s (pre-or bubble economy), there was a large variety of products and substantial resources were spent on engineering and product development. In fact, some products were quite unique such as the Isuzu Piazza, Toyota Supra, Celica or the Subaru SVX.

“Demand for cars has steadily declined in the Japanese home market and the product mix has shifted to low-margin compact hatchbacks (like the Honda Fit or Nissan March) or hybrids,” Kendall said. “Honda recently discontinued selling the Civic in Japan. Likewise, hybrids are expensive to manufacture due to the additional hardware…batteries, electric motors, etc.”

There is also more competition and products on the market. The Koreans are becoming aggressive and have interesting and affordable products. Ford has improved and U.S. cars have large engines, which mean more power and better performance – they are more fun to drive. The Italian and German cars are known for their style.

Historically, Japan was known for its quality and reliability, but the Toyota recall hurt this imagine. The company recalled five million vehicles with accelerator pedals that could become trapped under the floor mat, and in 2005 recalled fix steering relay rods that could crack or break in some models. Toyota waited a year before recalling on the relay rods in Japan and acknowledging that all models in the United States were affected

More competition makes it harder to stand out and the gap is closing for the Japanese automakers.

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