Japan automakers hitch pickups to U.S. growth as gas prices slide

Thu Jan 14, 2016 1:32am EST
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By Naomi Tajitsu

DETROIT (Reuters) - Japanese automakers are taking on Detroit's Big Three and scrambling to expand their share of pickup truck sales in the United States, as record low gasoline prices curb demand for their once best-selling small and medium-sized sedans.

Soaring demand for SUVs and pickup trucks drove U.S. auto sales to a record high last year, as the lowest fuel prices in seven years prompted a shift from sedans and smaller cars to larger vehicles in the world's biggest auto market.

The big U.S. automakers - Ford Motor Co (F.N: Quote), General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote) and Chrysler (FCAU.N: Quote) - have so far gained the most from this shift, with many selling pickups at luxury car prices.

Faced with slowing demand growth for smaller models including the Civic, the Camry and the Altima, Japanese automakers such as Honda Motor Co (7267.T: Quote), Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: Quote) and Nissan Motor Co Ltd (7201.T: Quote) now want in, launching beefed up models at the Detroit auto show this week.

"We're looking for 5 percent share of the full-sized pickup truck segment," Nissan North America Chairman Jose Munoz said at the Detroit auto show this week, citing a figure that dwarfs Nissan's roughly 0.6 percent market share of the full-sized pickup segment last year.

The automaker launched a hulking concept design for its Titan XD pickup model at the event.

While Japanese automakers have steadily grown their share of the SUV and crossover markets, their share of the higher-margin truck market was 14.7 percent in 2015, according to automotive researcher Kelley Blue Book, down from 20.5 percent in 2007.

Regaining market share will be tough, however, as many truck buyers tend to remain loyal to U.S. models, senior analyst Karl Brauer said, but the Japanese automakers still have a chance.   Continued...

Jose Munoz, Chair of Nissan North America, introduces the Nissan Titan Warrior concept truck at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 12, 2016.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook -