If anything underscores Jeep’s role as the star marque in the newly formed Stellantis universe, it’s the way the off-road brand has been performing in Japan.
For decades, foreign manufacturers have repeatedly tried to gain traction in what is one of the world’s larger automotive markets. With rare exception, they’ve been relegated to niche status – at best – many giving up and pulling out of Japan. But while Jeep’s numbers still lag behind the country’s domestic players, it has been gaining ground rapidly, actually scoring a sales increase despite the pandemic last year.
Jeep – which became part of Stellantis this week, following the formal merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and PSA Group – is rolling out an aggressive expansion plan aimed at boosting Japanese sales by half again during the next three years.
The Japanese market has long beckoned foreign manufacturers from BMW to General Motors to Hyundai. What was then Chrysler Corp. made a major push into the market back in 1996 with the launch of a right-hand-drive version of the little Neon sedan. Despite a flashy debut and expensive marketing campaign, sales went nowhere and Neon was pulled from the market less than a year later. Chrysler tried again in 2000 with the PT Cruiser, the quirky crossover faring no better.
That Jeep might be clicking with Japanese buyers might come as a surprise. Most of that country’s buyers are located in urban areas, such as Tokyo, with their crowded, slow-moving roadways. Microcars make up one of the market’s largest vehicle segments. But utility vehicles have rapidly gained traction, much as they have in other densely populated markets like Europe and China.
It took what became FCA years to figure that out, though that reflects a broader flaw in the company’s strategy. It really wasn’t until the old Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 that the new management team began to explore the growth potential for the Jeep brand. Since then, demand has nearly quintupled, from 340,000 sales worldwide in 2009 to 1.5 million in 2019.
Japan is still little more than an asterisk on the Jeep global sales chart, generating demand for 13,588 of the brand’s products last year. But that was the brand’s seventh consecutive record and, in a pandemic year that saw auto sales worldwide take a massive hit, represented a 1.7% increase in demand.
“As the pandemic accelerated, Jeep managed to minimize the impact on sales far better than the competitors,” Pontus Häggström, who has been serving as CEO of FCA Japan, told Automotive News. “Jeep outperformed the market, 10 out of 12 months.”
Looking forward, Häggström sees significant growth opportunities. For 2021, the sales target is 15,000, and 20,000 three years from now.
To back its growth plan, the company has already opened or renovated 23 outlets for Jeep in Japan during the last 12 months, with another 18 dealerships to follow. It also has shifted to a digital marketing strategy and introduced creative financing plans that include a “Skip Loan” program that lets customers skip payments for as many as five months, the money to be paid back at a later date.
Jeep’s success in Japan has come even as other foreign-based manufacturers have left the country or scaled back. Both Ford and Hyundai gave up on the Japanese market several years ago, while General Motors has sharply scaled back its own presence.
The operation could serve as a learning lesson for Stellantis as it works up a strategy to gain better traction in other key markets, such as China.