Detroit 3 Return To Japan With A Revolutionary Strategy

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
detroit 3 return to japan with a revolutionary strategy

For long, Detroit automakers explained their miserable sales numbers in Japan with somersaulting logic: “Our sales numbers are so miserable in Japan, because the Japanese market is closed to imports. Proof: Our miserable sales numbers.”

German carmakers in the meantime, notably Volkswagen, do not complain at all. They control 80 percent of Japan’s growing import market. Volkswagen’s small Up! turned into an especially hot seller, and Volkswagen’s executives in Japan emphatically deny that the market is closed.

Now, the Detroit Three are back in Japan with a revolutionary strategy: Offer cars the market wants.

In Japan’s case, that’s smaller cars. “Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC are gearing up to release smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles here to better compete against German automakers,” writes The Nikkei [sub]. If they fail, they can always go back to claiming that the market is closed.

  • At Ford, where big SUVs like the Explorer and Escape account for 80 percent of all of the 3,648 units the company imported to Japan this year, the big brutes will be joined by the Focus five-door hatchback next summer. Who knows, with a little success, maybe Ford will spend the money on a Japanese website with a menu and headlines in Japanese …
  • GM hopes the Cadillac ATS, to be brought to the country in March, will sway Japanese customers. Cadillac needs a little help with only 1,122 sold so far in Japan. Even the Yakuza are beginning to think that Escalades are too ostentatious, a contact in Kabukicho tells me.
  • Chrysler will launch the 0.9-liter Ypsilon compact this Saturday, its first new model in the Japanese market in four years. Now wonder the brand sold only 592 cars in Japan this year.

Together, the Detroit Three sold a total of around 12,000 vehicles here in the first 11 months of 2012, something they clearly want to improve on in the coming year. German brands sold more than 160,000 cars so far this year in the allegedly closed Japanese market.

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  • Landcrusher Landcrusher on Dec 18, 2012

    Seriously, guys. It's not a mystery. Yes, market specific standards are less of a barrier for larger markets. It's just logical. The US rules for auto manufacturers aren't that big a deal sense the likely players are mega corps. The issue with Japan, back to the eighties and before, is that their game playing is much less transparent, and much more subtle. It's likely improved since the days of Japan, Inc. But it's still there. Ford going into Japan runs into similar problems you would have starting a new manufacturing business by yourself in a state across the country from you. The regulations are often unclear and hidden. The lack of relationships is scary. The local regulators may see defeating you as a career opportunity, etc. OSHA, or any number of alphabets plus state and local could walk in and shut you down and fine you more than you made last year. Americans can be rather ignorant of our own foreign relations, but also naive about others. Our cheating is historically a fraction of the crap pulled by countries in general. The Japanese are experts. There is no telling what the results will be so the incentive to try is tiny. It's a gamble that international relationships will get them to force their own people to let you have a shot at their amazingly nationalistic consumers.

  • Niky Niky on Dec 19, 2012

    I've read the arguments about it, and I still don't get it. Well, I mean I get it. But I don't see it as Japan's problem. Strict and ever-changing regulations impact not only foreign automakers, they impact domestic Japanese automakers, as well. But for Japanese automakers, it is seen as a strength, as it drives turn-over, leading to a huge export market for Japanese secondhands, and driving sales of brand new cars in Japan. But then, there are the same sort of issues elsewhere, like in Korea... or in China, where you have a totally different set of issues. Both of which were solved by GM doing what comes naturally when you want to conquer a captured market: BUY IN. Buy into Daewoo. Buy into a partnership with a local Chinese corporation and build your cars on Chinese soil. GM tried it before with varying success with Isuzu, Subaru and Suzuki. Isuzu, GM invested heavily in, and it failed. Isuzu now only sells industrial vehicles in Japan. Its passenger trucks are only sold in third-world markets. The Subaru connection was never big enough. In Suzuki, GM had a manufacturer who was very strong in the Japanese market, and which could produce exactly what GM could not for that market. But Suzuki was a poor match for the US market. Its most successful vehicles in Japan and India were ones GM could not exploit for use in America, which is why Suzuki America was stuck with rebadged Daewoos. Suzuki of America's weakness and eventually failure likely played a big role in GM's unloading of its big share of Suzuki. Non-tariff barriers? Yeah. If you choose to sell under your own nameplate and choose to do it with cars developed for other markets. Hell, Honda can't even sell the Civic in Japan thanks to those "non-tariff barriers", but if you're willing to play ball, the market is there. You just have to put up with low margins and maybe losses for the first few years, but if you produce something the market wants, and you have the right partner, then it's definitely possible. Hell. That's how GM is doing Korea. And that's how Ford and GM are doing Brazil, India and the ASEAN. Of course, those are developing markets, and it's worth doing there. In Japan, the market has already been developed, so market penetration is going to take some big sacrifices and investments. The Big Three are ones to talk. The barriers to entry for any brand new automaker nowadays for the US market is so big that you'd need billions to get started. The hundreds of millions squandered on electric start-ups by the US government were a pitiful drop in the barrel compared to what was actually needed to make them succeed.

    • See 1 previous
    • Niky Niky on Dec 19, 2012

      @Pch101 That's the party line, but again... local collaboration? The regulations are black and white. Unless there are regulations you can point to that are not stated. Unclear regulations and red tape are the same issues facing automakers in China. But they've chosen to play ball by going working with the locals, because they see immense profits. Going after the more difficult, nationalistic and low-margin Japanese market (still in the middle of a multi-decade recession) right now would seem futile, and all this complaining is nothing more than lobbying for Japan to do things the European way, instead.

  • ToolGuy Nice writeup.
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