Saturday, May 3, 2014

Jeep's sales keep climbing in Japan

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SUV specialist solidifies standing as country's No. 1 American brand

SUV specialist solidifies standing as country's No. 1 American brand

Jeep promoted its four-wheeling prowess on an off-road course called Stuckland in the foothills of Mount Fuji.

TOKYO -- As other U.S. brands struggle in Japan, Jeep is forging ahead to its fifth straight year of sales increases and a solidified, if unlikely, spot as the No. 1 American brand here.

Jeep sales climbed 56 percent to 1,868 vehicles in the first three months of 2014 and are expected to eclipse 8,000 for the full year and 10,000 in 2015, Chrysler Group's local operation predicts.

Business will get a boost from May's introduction of the redesigned Cherokee and next year's arrival of the Renegade.

The numbers may seem small, but they are a victory in Japan, where import brands still account for just 5 percent of the market. And Jeep, surprisingly in a country that loves small cars and hybrids, is tops among American brands, outselling bigger mass-market compatriots such as Ford and Chevrolet.

"The positioning is very clear," says Pontus Haggstrom, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Japan. "We do only SUVs and we do them well."

Fiat factor

Jeep's success also underscores how Fiat S.p.A.'s 2009 tie-up and eventual takeover of Chrysler has had global repercussions. In China, for instance, Jeep will return to local manufacturing next year, thanks to a local joint venture with Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. brokered partly by Fiat.

In Japan, Jeep's dealership footprint expanded when existing Fiat dealers picked up Chrysler and Jeep franchises. Says Haggstrom: "It allowed us to expand the network quite quickly."

Jeep now has 63 dealerships in Japan, compared with 50 only 18 months ago. The goal is to grow to 90 outlets within two years.

Jeep passed Ford as the best-selling U.S. brand in Japan in 2012.

Through March of this year, Jeep sold 1,868 units here, compared with Ford's 1,506. Chevrolet, the No. 3 U.S. marque here, sold just 328 units.

Jeep's goal of more than 10,000 units next year would put it within striking distance of the record 14,500 it sold in 1996, a year when all U.S.-made vehicles benefited from a favorable currency rate. That's not true today.

This year, Jeep is expected to displace Fiat as Fiat Chrysler's best selling brand in Japan. The group also sells Alfa Romeo and Chrysler in Japan and positions Abarth as a stand-alone brand.

Right-hand steering helps

It helps that Jeep fits all models with right-hand steering, a feat not yet mastered by such foreign rivals as General Motors.

Jeep also homologates its vehicles for Japan at the U.S. factory instead of the port of entry.

At a recent weeklong roadshow, Jeep promoted its four-wheeling prowess at a mud-soaked off-road course called Stuckland in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Executives enjoyed joking that their Jeeps weren't getting stuck at Stuckland.

Corporate sibling brand Chrysler, however, is having a harder time gaining traction. The brand was revived here in December 2012, after a four-year moratorium on new product.

Dodge pulled out at the same time.

Today, Chrysler sells only the 300 sedan and Chrysler Ypsilon, a rebadged version of the Lancia Ypsilon minicar. Its sales are expected to hold flat around 1,000 units this year, Haggstrom says.

Unlike Jeep, which is bolstering its lineup, Chrysler has no other products in its lineup suitable for Japan, Haggstrom says.

Still, even Chrysler's modest results mark progress. Notes Haggstrom: "Two years ago there were zero sales from Chrysler."

You can reach Hans Greimel at -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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