Sporty Look Stirs Sales in Japan Automakers Offer Recreational Vehicles, Often Car-Truck Hybrids, to Woo Buyers

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WITH their home market entering its fifth year of recession, Japanese carmakers are searching for something - anything - to bring customers back to the showroom.

"Japanese customers are looking for something new and different," says Honda Motor Company president Nobuhiko Kawamoto.

Honda defines different as the new CR-V. The vehicle was introduced in mid-October, and sales are running three times higher than expected. So next month the automaker will add a second shift at the CR-V plant, nearly doubling production.

The Japanese define the CR-V as a "recreational vehicle," but by US standards, it would be considered a subcompact sport-utility vehicle - at least until you looked underneath. Then you'd discover the CR-V is based on the same passenger-car platform as Honda's Civic subcompact, rather than the truck-like chassis used for a conventional "sport-ute."

There's a trade-off. The CR-V isn't designed for the same rugged, off-road driving. On the other hand, it gets better gas mileage than a true sport-ute, and it's more comfortable on paved roads - where it's really likely to be driven. Few Japanese motorists ever stray off-road.

"RVs are what's happening," says Chris Redl, an auto analyst with the Tokyo branch of Baring Securities. "They're the only segment happening right now" in an otherwise stagnant market, he says.

Last year's big hit was the Toyota RAV4, another car-truck hybrid. And so now, everyone wants to get into the act. Of 40 products and prototypes displayed at this year's Tokyo Motor Show, 26 fell into the broad RV category, which also includes minivans.

MAZDA called its BU-X concept car a "multipurpose compact car," but it's another hybrid, a cross between a sport-ute and a station wagon. The Mazda SU-V stands taller and has more traditional sport-ute styling, but both vehicles sit on the same platform the Mazda 323 sedan uses. The Isuzu Deseo may look like a sport-ute, but it's targeted at the same Japanese buyers who'd go for compact luxury cars.

A decade ago, recreational vehicles accounted for just 10 percent of Japan's motor-vehicle market. This year, they will top 25 percent. …