Japan car makers shuffle output, boost imports to meet U.S. SUV demand

Fri Nov 11, 2016 5:25am EST
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By Naomi Tajitsu and Maki Shiraki

TOKYO/MARYSVILLE (Reuters) - Japan's top automakers are shuffling their U.S. product portfolios and resorting to larger imports of popular models there as they scramble to meet booming demand for gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks in the world's No. 2 auto market.

Honda Motor Co (7267.T: Quote), Japan's third-largest automaker, said it will begin producing from early next year the Acura MDX SUV at its plant in East Liberty, Ohio, adding to production at its Alabama plant, which also makes its Pilot SUV, Ridgeline pick-up truck and Odyssey minivan.

Honda, Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: Quote) and Nissan Motor Co (7201.T: Quote) are all trying to maximize production efficiency at their North American plants to squeeze out more SUVs, but Toyota and Nissan have been importing a large number of SUV models to make up for the production shortfall, and Honda may do the same.

"It takes time for manufacturing to catch up to these shifts because automakers are committing to changing their portfolio. It's not something you can do quickly," said Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for automotive research company Kelley Blue Book.

Imports allow car makers to sell more cars in a region without raising local production capacity, but they also can increase foreign exchange risks.

Historically low U.S. gasoline prices and cost-conscious consumers seeking multi-tasking vehicles have boosted sales of SUVs, particularly smaller crossover models, and trucks, denting demand for traditionally sought-after passenger cars.

Currently, 59 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. market are light trucks, versus 41 percent passenger cars, compared with 55 percent and 45 percent, respectively, a year ago, according to Autodata figures.

In contrast, the balance of U.S. vehicle sales at each of Japan's top three automakers is roughly even, suggesting that while they are producing more vehicles, the model mix of their sales is lagging market trends.   Continued...

Honda Motor Co Ltd  presents their new SUV model "WRV" during the Sao Paulo International Motor Show in Sao Paulo, Brazil, November 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker