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Car Culture

Young Japanese Just Say No to Cars

sputtering_sales.gifNow for some good news: Car culture is on the wane, at least in Japan. The Wall Street Journal reports that car sales in Japan are down 31 percent since the peak in 1990, and not only because of stagnant population growth. The newest generation of would-be buyers, it turns out, just doesn't think cars are all that necessary:

A survey last year of 1,700 Japanese in their 20s and 30s by the NihonKeizai Shimbun, Japan's biggest business newspaper, discovered thatonly 25% of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48% in2000. The manufacturers' association found that men 29 years old andyounger made up 11% of Japanese drivers in 2005, roughly half the sizeof that group in 1993.

What's the automotive industry to do in the face of such a strong downward trend? Update the brand, of course:

Auto makers are devising marketing efforts to appeal to young Japanese men and women but have seen limited success. Toyota MotorCorp. last fall sponsored a public test drive of its vehicles on theTokyo waterfront and plans more. The company is trying to connect withthe computer-savvy generation through its Web site www.gazoo.com, whichfeatures "drive date" video downloads. Filmed from a driver'sperspective, the videos let a viewer go on a day drive with a young,female Japanese model as they drive together along scenic,congestion-free roads.

Japanese car makers are convinced that the future of their domestic market lies in gimmicky models like Nissan's Pivo 2 prototype, which the article describes as "a three-seat electric car, with a bubble-like rotating cabin, that is
capable of driving sideways to slip easily into a parking space." Good luck with that, Nissan.

Before you start despairing that youth culture here in America will be stuck in Pimp My Ride mode for the foreseeable future, consider the forecast of Tom Lane, an American who runs Nissan's overall product strategy. In an article that appeared on CNN Money in January, Lane predicted that disaffection with the auto will hit Europe and the U.S. soon enough:

The population in Europe is aging too, and Lane sees similar ennuispreading there. As car ownership becomes more expensive and citiesincreasingly impose congestion pricing on car usage in center cities,he sees car owners switching to mass transit for their daily commute,and then renting cars for longer trips.

"The U.S. is headed thatway," he says. "The challenge for us, going forward, is a moreinteresting offer. Doing a better Sentra or an Altima isn't going to doit."

Hey, maybe one of those rotating cabin bubble numbers will do the trick.

Thanks to reader Eddie Hernandez for the WSJ link

Graphic: The Wall Street Journal

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