American automotive brands have never really caught on with the typical Japanese consumer. While we’ve done numerous dives trying to understand why the gist is that our tastes don’t typically overlap and they generally prefer to buy domestic. Foreign marques are comparatively rare, frequently German, and are generally owned by those looking to flex their status with an imported luxury vehicle.
U.S. brands that were on the market began retreating as they began pulling smaller automobiles from their lineup. But Jeep has stuck it in there and things are reportedly beginning to pay off. The automaker’s distinctive styling seems to be resonating with people in Asia and it’s really the only historically American nameplate that’s managed to find an audience in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Fiat Chrysler Japan has yet to finalize arrangements to be fully integrated into the new Stellantis NV and a part of us wonders if that has anything to do with its rosy reporting. There’s a decent chance Groupe PSA didn’t want to keep Jeep operating within the region and it would behoove the brand to show it has merit before its Japanese offices run the risk of being shut down. It’s a wholly speculative scenario but not unrealistic and exactly what I would be doing in Jeep’s shoes.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, FCA Japan sales boss Hitoshi Ushikubo stated that Jeep deliveries are on pace to eclipse 15,000 units this year. While that’s less product than the company shifts in the U.S. over the average week, it still represents consistent growth in a market that never seemed interested in American (or French-Italian-American) automobiles.
Despite the pandemic, Jeep’s Japan sales notched a 1.7 percent increase in 2020 to reach a record level for a seventh consecutive year.
“We’ve made efforts to fit with the Japanese market” by rolling out cars with right-hand drive, unlike General Motors and Ford, Ushikubo said. “Young people are looking for cars that allow them to present a part of their character,” he said, adding that a strong social media presence has also helped the brand.
Jeep sold 1,925 cars in March, 36 percent higher than the same month of 2020, which was impacted by COVID-19, with the Wrangler and Renegade marques the most popular, according to a statement Tuesday. Jeep ranked third last year among imported SUV brands in Japan.
While the Wrangler and Renegade are the brand’s most popular models in the region by far, Jeep offers other models in Japan. That’s arguably an achievement in itself. Most American automakers operating on the island typically limit themselves to a few specialty vehicles catering to a niche market and don’t have dedicated dealerships. Jeep has been far more ambitious and is even seeking to expand. According to Fiat Chrysler Japan CEO Pontus Häggström, the corporate strategy involves swelling its network of 80 dealerships to at least 100 by 2023.
While we don’t know if that’s going to make the brand a cash cow, Stellantis would be foolish not to identify the importance of Jeep in Asia. Younger drivers really seem to be gravitating toward the brand and it accounts for over half of group sales within the region. That’s a very big deal, made colossal by the fact that American brands were assumed incapable of breaking into the Japanese market. But how was this accomplished?
Jeep has claimed its success has everything to do with offering a desirable product not available elsewhere and actively catering to Japanese customers. Those Renegade sales aren’t a coincidence. Knowing the model’s diminutive stature would make it an ideal product for the market, Jeep started producing them in right-hand-drive, modifying their engines to cater to the local emission incentives, making sure the infotainment system was available in flawless Japanese and tossing them into region-focused marketing campaigns. The resulting efforts have made it the default American brand in the region. Jeep outsells every other American automotive brand by such a wide margin that they might as well not even be there.
But will Stellantis be appreciative of its modest growth?