Toyota -- As American as apple pie
Japanese carmakers present 'America First' image at Chicago Auto Show
TOYOKI NAKANISHI, Nikkei staff writer
NEW YORK -- After initial concern over a possible flare-up of transpacific auto trade friction, U.S. President Donald Trump held fire during his first official meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
At their joint news conference at the Whites House on Feb. 10, the new U.S. leader made no reference to the Japanese auto market, which he has repeatedly claimed is closed to American brands.
The chances of renewed friction appear to have receded, at least for now. But, that does not mean the likes of Toyota Motor will be sleeping easy, with Trump vowing to make good on his "America First" campaign pledge.
In fact, if the displays at the 2017 Chicago Auto Show are anything to go by, many Japanese carmakers are competing to push their own credentials as "America First" players.
The show held its media preview on Feb. 9-10 and opened to the public on Feb. 11.
The "I AM TOYOTA USA" message displayed inside the company's booth said everything. The messages are flanked by photos of smiling employees and quotes like: "I work in one of ten Toyota factories here in America."
One worker is described as proud of being involved in building Toyota cars, as cumulative production in the U.S. has reached 25 million units.
Interestingly, there is barely a mention of any specific vehicles.
Unlike the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which brings together industry officials and media from around the world every year, the Chicago Auto Show mainly attracts ordinary consumers from across the Midwest.
At the Detroit show, presidents of automakers usually make appearances at events targeting the media. In Chicago, it is usually executives in charge of sales in North America who show up.
The models on display at the Chicago Auto Show are also more consumer-oriented -- lots of pickup trucks and other vehicles that are actually selling well when the trade fair is on.
Given the local feel, Toyota has gone for a strategy of emphasizing that it has put down roots in the country.
Toyota's booth has even more of an "America First" feel than those of its U.S. rivals -- General Motors and Ford Motor are using the show to pitch their pickup trucks, citing higher traveling performance and durability.
Nissan Motor has a similar strategy to Toyota. The company released the new Titan pickup truck at the show, labeling it an "American Titan," which is "designed in California, engineered in Michigan, tested in Arizona, assembled in Mississippi [and] powered by Indiana and Tennessee." The vehicle's performance fails to get a mention.
Chances are that its not so much the new president that Toyota and Nissan are concerned with, but his legions middle-class supporters in the Midwest.
On Jan. 9, Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda used the Detroit show to announce investment totaling of $10 billion in the U.S. over five years.
In Chicago, the company is going for a grass-roots approach -- trying to strike a chord with the man in the street.
This kind of approach to the U.S. market by a Japanese automaker is a typical crisis-management exercise. But it will prove counterproductive once Trump launches his verbal attacks, according to Nao Matsukata, president and CEO of U.S.-based FairWinds Partners. Matsukata previously worked for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and has a lot of experience in advising Japanese companies.
Yet, Japanese automakers understandably want to do everything they can, just in case. That is particularly true for Toyota -- having come under fire from Trump for investment plans in Mexico -- and the company wants to nip any sources of trouble in the bud.
Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota division at Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., attended the Chicago Auto Show. He said that he is watching the Trump administration's moves carefully.
The new administration's trade and tax policies have yet to fully take shape. Under the circumstances, Japanese automakers will likely continue to explore ways to wriggle out of a possible political storm in the U.S., at least for the time being.
Looking at a new Tundra pickup truck on display in Chicago, one American cameraman working for local TV said that he already drives a Toyota, but wants the new model because he thinks it is made in Japan.
The U.S. levies an import tariff of 25% on pickup trucks to protect domestic automakers, meaning Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers simply do not produce pickup trucks at home.
After learning that the new Tundra is not Japanese-made, the cameraman commented that if it were, it would be more popular as American-made vehicles have a reputation for breaking down.