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HondaJet overtakes Cessna as top-selling small business jet in 2017

Japanese plane maker beats US rival for first time, nearly doubling sales to 43

Honda Motor says it wants to make the HondaJet a flag bearer for its brand. (Courtesy of Honda)

TOKYO -- Honda Motor delivered 43 of its business jets, the HondaJet, to customers in 2017, up 20 from a year before, becoming the top-selling model for the first time by beating out U.S. rival Cessna Aircraft.

Cessna delivered 39 of its mainstay Citation M2 jets during the year.

Honda said its aircraft business improved mainly due to the strong North American market and Europe. It said about half of the aircraft it delivered went to individuals, and half to corporate clients.

The HondaJet is priced at $4.9 million. That would put annual sales at about $210.7 million, based on simple calculations.

Despite an overall slowdown in the business jet market around the world, demand for "very light" business jets such as the HondaJet grew by 50% last year from the year before.

According to data released Wednesday by the Washington-based General Aviation Manufacturers Association, a total of 676 business jets were delivered in 2017, up 1.3% from a year before, the first rise in three years. It was just half the figure for the peak year of 2008, however.

Very-light jets carry fewer than 10 people, including the pilot. In North America and Europe, they are mainly used to travel between cities and are primarily owned by wealthy individuals. Demand from companies and airlines has also been rising.

In 2015, the HondaJet was approved by the the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and was turned into a business that year. While the company had over 100 orders for the jet, it supplied just 23 in 2016, the first year that production was fully up and running. The HondaJet is made in the U.S. state of North Carolina, as the U.S. is the world's largest market for business jets.

The most notable characteristic of the HondaJet, which has seven seats, is its unique design that places the engine above the wings. This gives it more space inside and makes it quieter than rival aircraft, which have engines attached to the body.

A global rise in fuel prices also helped sales. Among global aircraft makers, Honda is the only one that makes its own engines, giving it up to 20% greater fuel efficiency than competitors' models, according to the company.

Getting into the aircraft business was a lifelong dream of Honda founder Soichiro Honda. The company wants to make the business a new pillar in its brand strategy to replace its struggling Formula One car-racing business. It wants to develop the business into a new revenue source, alongside its auto and other businesses.

Honda began quietly developing jets and engines in 1986, but initially struggled due to a lack of know-how. It decided to commercialize aircraft production in 2006. Then-President Takeo Fukui later said he wanted the business to replace F1 as flag bearer of the Honda brand.

While HondaJet has focused primarily on the North American market, it has being making inroads into Asian markets in recent years. The company received 16 orders at the Singapore Air Show in February. It plans to increase monthly production at its U.S. factory this year to five planes from four to meet demand.

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