By Sean McLain
TOKYO -- American car buyers' appetite for pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles keeps growing to once-undreamed of levels, which is generally bad news for Japanese auto makers not named Toyota Motor Corp.
Toyota, Japan's largest car maker by sales and profit, reported increased profit in the July-September quarter Thursday and maintained its guidance for the full year. That bucked a broader trend among the major Japanese makers that have reported earnings thus far. All except Toyota lowered their forecasts, at least in part because of concerns about their prospects in the U.S.
Toyota and other Japanese car makers that used to focus on sedans spent years playing catchup in the U.S. market, refreshing old SUV models and ramping up production chasing the SUV-crazy American car buyer. The problem was all their competitors did the same thing, and U.S. car makers often did it faster. The wide range of options means slimmer profits, Japanese car companies say.
Mazda Motor Corp. slashed its sales and profit expectations for the year ending March 2020 citing the U.S. The Hiroshima-based car maker overhauled its lineup in an attempt to get shoppers to pay more, and the new Mazda 3 hatchback and sedan went on sale in March to rave reviews about their looks and handling.
Nonetheless, U.S. sales of the Mazda 3 were down by more than 20% in the most recent quarter.
The U.S. market "is in a very difficult condition," said Kiyoshi Fujiwara, Mazda's executive vice president. "There are many customers who are extremely price-conscious." Mazda hopes a new small SUV, the CX-30, will help do what the Mazda 3 couldn't.
The better money is in pickup trucks, where a boom in popularity is leading to record prices. That is buoying the results of General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. More than half of Ford sales in the July-September quarter were pickup trucks and the figure was about 30% for GM, compared with around 15% at Toyota.
"If you categorize the U.S., it is between trucks and the rest of the trucks," said Ashwani Gupta, chief operating officer at Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Mitsubishi revised down its sales expectations in the U.S. for the rest of the year, despite having an SUV-heavy lineup, because it didn't think it would make enough money there.
Toyota is the only Japanese car company with a full lineup of trucks and SUVs that competes with Detroit across the board, and that is helping bolster Toyota's healthy business. Revenue in the July-September quarter rose 4.5% to Yen7.6 trillion ($70 billion) and net profit rose slightly to Yen592 billion ($5.4 billion), beating analysts' expectations for a profit fall.
Toyota's problem in the U.S. is getting enough vehicles to feed the demand. Sales of Toyota's midsize Tacoma truck fell 2.8% in the U.S. in the July-September quarter, while the overall market for midsize trucks grew 25%. A Toyota spokesman said a supply shortage was partly to blame. Executives at the company have said they could sell around 100,000 more Tacomas a year if they could build them, and have been scrambling to get a new plant for Tacomas started in Guanajuato, Mexico.
The heavy competition in SUVs is bad news for Nissan Motor Co., which has been looking to dial back spending on financial incentives. So far, sales volume is down and the profits haven't picked up. Nissan reports its financial results for the July-September period on Tuesday.
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