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LOS ANGELES-Just as they gained volume in the 1980s by selling price, Japanese makes are grabbing back market share this year by selling payment.

Lease payment, that is.

Using traditionally high resale values to leverage residual rates, Japanese nameplates are turning to leases to mask the effect of the strong yen on sticker prices. The tactic appears to be working now, though there may be a price to pay later.

Japanese nameplates won back 1.2 points of car market share in the first half, finishing with 28.8%. They gained slightly in light trucks, too.

Mitsubishi and Mazda both reported their best first halves ever. Mitsubishi sales jumped 33.6%; Mazda's, 23.6%.

In the process, Mitsubishi's lease volume soared to 30% of deliveries from 15% a year ago. When leases from the Diamond Advantage plan are counted, the lease share was 45%.

"The most loyal customer is a lessee. We know exactly when a customer is getting out of his car," said Richard Recchia, exec VP of Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America.

Mazda Motor of America has nearly doubled its percentage of leases as a share of deliveries; it's now up to 22%. A $199-a-month deal on Miatas sparked increased showroom traffic but wasn't limited to that auto, said Bill Jensen, dealer financial services manager.

Last year, Mazda offered lease deals on only the 929 and 626. This year, the Millenia, RX-7, MX-6, Navajo and Miata have been added. A lease package will also be offered on the new Protege this fall.

Mazda's regions are allowed to determine whether customers prefer a lower down payment, a lower monthly payment or shorter lease term.

Toyota Motor Sales USA also revved up its leasing effort with the Toyota Touch leasing program, which covers all cars and trucks. The target: 25% of sales, up from 17% for 1993.

Toyota hopes attractive payments and high residual values take some edge off high sticker prices. Along the San Diego Freeway, an outdoor board from Toyota of Long Beach hawks an astounding $49-a-month lease on the Tercel or base pickup.

American Honda Motor Co., however, has taken a conservative approach. Rivals had their doubts when Honda unveiled an 36-month Accord lease for $199 a month and said it wasn't subvented, but Richard Colliver, Honda Division senior VP, swears it isn't.

Lease experts said the Japanese are merely putting off trouble until 1997, when today's new cars come off leases and swamp the used-car market.

"There will be a ton of cars coming back then, and all the remarketing in the world isn't going to stop it," said Art Spinella, VP of CNW Marketing Research, Bandon, Ore.

Mark Rechtin is a staff reporter with Automotive News.

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