Trends Japan

Asia-Pacific Analytics Team

08 December 2020

Prevailing trends in the Japanese auto market

The Japanese market has been no exception to the global SUV boom, so it comes as little surprise that both domestic and foreign OEMs are accelerating new product launches, in a trend reminiscent of the Minivan boom of the 1990s, with the creation of new sub-segments and the addition of derivatives of existing models.

The SUV boom shows little sign of abating, particularly as many of the new BEVs will dovetail with the new SUV products reaching the market.

However, another trend has long been synonymous with the Japanese market: vehicle practicality. This is essentially defined by two key factors – namely economy (pricing and fuel efficiency) and ease of use (spacious interiors allowing for more passengers and cargo) – and has been the driving force behind the enduring dominance of Kei Cars and hybrids.

Kei Cars have long been seen as an ideal form of daily transport in Japan, thanks to their affordability and energy efficiency, with the segment accounting for 35% of today’s market.

Roomier interiors are just one of the developments in the segment. Automakers have also been transforming the traditional Kei Car format by increasing vehicle height, creating so-called ‘Tall Wagons’ and ‘Super Height Wagons’ such as Daihatsu’s Tanto and Move, Honda’s N-Box, Suzuki’s Wagon R and Spacia, and Nissan’s Roox/Mitsubishi eK Space.

The practicality trend has also been a major impetus for hybrid vehicle growth. Having initially failed to gain traction, this changed when fuel prices hit record highs in the 2000s. Consumers began to turn their attention to hybrids, with the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius enjoying strong gains. Currently, hybrid vehicles account for roughly 35% of all Passenger Car sales (Kei cars excluded) in Japan.

These market dynamics were further supported by the ‘Japanese asset price bubble’ financial crisis in the late 1980s, which led to the demise of many niche models, not least sports coupés, which had  previously found favour with both male and younger female buyers. Many automakers attempted to stimulate demand by emphasising the notion of motoring for pleasure, rather than practicality, but this has done little, as yet, to revive demand for sporty models.

Nor can we overlook the steady decline in sedan sales in recent years, with the segment also falling prey to the practicality trend. Given their passenger and cargo constraints, sedans offer less appeal than roomier Keir Cars and hybrid SUVs.

This led to the following changes:

  • Toyota discontinued the Mark X (December 2019).
  • Build of the Honda Accord for the Japanese market was shifted to Thailand (February 2020).
  • Honda discontinued the Grace/City (July 2020) and Civic sedan (August 2020) in Japan (although the Civic hatchback remains on sale).
  • Subaru discontinued the Legacy sedan in Japan (July 2020).
  • Nissan discontinued the Teana (July 2020) and Sylphy (August 2020) in Japan.

More spacious Kei Cars, Compact Cars and SUVs benefited as a result, and the trend in favour of more practical models is set to strengthen over the longer term.

On a final note, a Japanese newspaper recently claimed that Toyota intends to discontinue the Crown sedan and replace it with an SUV from the next update. Largely produced/sold in Japan, the Crown is one of Toyota’s few Premium sedan models and is one of its flagship products. So, this speculative news came as a genuine surprise to the industry. If correct, it would serve as a further endorsement of the growing prevalence of the practicality trend in Japan.