* Japan firms fail to make significant European inroads
* South Korea's Hyundai, Kia boost sales, market share
* Japan firms try to boost local production amid strong yen
By Yoko Kubota
PARIS, Sept 27 Japanese automakers, battered by
a strong yen, are hunkering down in a stormy Europe, taking
tentative steps to stand up to their aggressive South Korean
rivals, in a market they see as challenging but worth the
Western Europe sales of all Japanese carmakers declined in
the eight months to August from a year ago, ranging from Toyota
Motor Corp's 0.9 percent dip to Mitsubishi Motors
Corp's 34.5 percent tumble.
That compares with South Korean Hyundai Motor Co's
9.3 percent rise and the 25.1 percent jump of its
affiliate, Kia Motors Corp, as aggressive marketing
of their stylish, affordable cars paid off, helped by a weak won
and a free trade agreement between South Korea and the European
Hyundai's market share grew to 3.2 percent in Western Europe
through August from 1.8 percent in 2007, while Kia's rose to 2.4
percent from 1.5 percent.
"It's a tough region for Japanese companies to do well, and
also if we use cars from Japan, of course it's very difficult in
terms of export," Karl Schlicht, executive vice president of
Toyota Motor Europe, told reporters on Wednesday, a day before
the Paris auto show opened to the media.
So why do Japanese carmakers bother?
In fact, some don't. Daihatsu Motor Co Ltd, part of
the Toyota group, will stop selling new cars in Europe in
January 2013, blaming the high costs needed to meet Europe's
tough environmental regulations and the strong yen.
But for many automakers, Europe's tough regulatory
requirements are part of the answer.
"This is where all global standards for cars are set. If we
don't fight here, we can't fight anywhere else," Hiroshi
Harunari, executive vice President of Mitsubishi, told Reuters
this week. Many Japanese automakers welcome Europe's tough
emissions and technological standards because they feel they
help them compete better in other parts of the world.
Executives cited standards such as the European Union's Euro
5 and Euro 6, which cap emissions allowed from various kinds of
The European market may be struggling as austerity measures,
high unemployment and fears about the future keep customers away
from showrooms, but it still represents a major chunk of global
The 27 EU member states accounted for 19 percent of
worldwide motor vehicle registrations - or 15.1 million vehicles
- in 2011, according to data published on the website of
European industry association ACEA.
At a tough time for the region, Japanese automakers can
count themselves lucky their presence in Europe is limited, said
Christopher Richter, a senior analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific
markets based in Tokyo.
"Their exposure to the region, compared to the state of the
German makers or the American makers, is very small. And given
the state of economy and the state of the vehicle market there,
that's not such a bad thing."
STEP BY STEP
Despite their decades-long presence, most Japanese carmakers
have failed to make significant inroads in the highly
competitive market, which is dominated by Western brands such as
Volkswagen, PSA Peugeot Citroen, Renault
The exception is Nissan Motor Co, which has an
alliance with Renault, receiving diesel engines and manual
transmissions popular in Europe from the French firm. It is the
only major Japanese carmaker whose market share has grown in
Western Europe in the last five years.
It rose to 3.4 percent in 2012 from 2.0 percent in 2007.
Nissan also produces about 80 percent of its products sold
in Europe within the region, a higher rate than that of Toyota
at around 67 percent and Honda at 60 percent.
Japanese firms suffered as the yen soared to about 77
against the dollar from 120 to the dollar five years ago, making
it more expensive to export from Japan. Supply chains were also
disrupted by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and Thai floods.
Honda Motor Co Ltd, whose market share in Western
Europe shrank to 1.0 percent this year from 1.9 percent five
years ago, has seen its European business lose money for three
years in a row and is not optimistic about a quick recovery.
Toyota, whose market share dropped to 4.2 percent from 5.8
percent in 2007, brought its European business back to profit
two years ago thanks to its financial services business.
Mazda Motor Corp CEO Takashi Yamanouchi told
reporters on Thursday the automaker wants to boost sales of cars
in Europe from the current 185,000 vehicles to 300,000 within
In common with its peers, one of its strategies to help
European operations is reducing reliance on imports. Toyota is
investing $350 million to build the new Auris compact hatchback
in Britain and the Corolla in Turkey.
"It's very easy to lose money here in Europe. So we have to
be careful, and we want to go step by step," said Toyota's
Schlicht. "There is no bravado or nobody is saying we need to do
crazy things in Europe."
Toyota aims to start making money this year in European car
Nissan is investing 900 million pounds ($1.45 billion) in
projects at its Sunderland plant in Britain, including
production of the Qashqai crossover, Note compact car, and the
LEAF electric vehicle.
Meanwhile, Mitsubishi agreed to sell a plant in the
Netherlands for 1 euro to a local bus maker on condition that
employees did not lose their jobs, giving up a sluggish
operation that had troubled it for years.
The carmaker will start selling the Outlander SUV and the
Mirage compact car in Europe soon.
"We are currently on the defensive, but as we introduce new
products into the market, we will also be on the offensive,"
said Mitsubishi's Harunari. "We shouldn't be pessimistic."