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Japanese automakers out to prove 'mini' doesn't mean dull

Daihatsu President Masanori Mitsui unveils the new Copen minivehicle in Tokyo on June 19. The car has detachable panels that can be swapped for a different look.

TOKYO -- Automakers in Japan have been racking up big sales of small cars. For many drivers, minivehicles are simply the most sensible option, offering outstanding fuel efficiency with a low price tag. Now manufacturers want to improve on this winning formula by turning out modest models that are practical as well as fun.

     In the fiscal year ended March, a record 2.26 million minivehicles were sold in Japan. The cars, categorized as "mini" based on their dimensions and engine size, accounted for about 40% of all new-car sales. They are particularly popular with women and seniors. 

     There is a bump around the bend, however. Another benefit of buying a minicar in Japan is the lower annual tax on such models. But next spring, the levy is set to rise from 7,200 yen ($70) to 10,800 yen.

     Automakers hope to keep sales strong by convincing more young drivers that enjoyable driving comes in small packages. 

     Daihatsu Motor has resurrected its sporty Copen roadster, production of which was suspended in 2012. And it has given the model a unique twist. On Thursday, the brand started selling a Copen convertible with exterior resin panels that are fixed to a reinforced frame with bolts. The outer panels can be replaced like smartphone cases. Owners can swap panels whenever the mood strikes.  

      At a news conference in Tokyo, Daihatsu President Masanori Mitsui suggested the company aims to lead the minivehicle market by changing perceptions and tapping into consumers' desire for fun-to-drive cars. Not only has the company adopted a radical new design -- it is also adjusting its advertising strategy.

     Daihatsu does not see TV ads as the key to promoting the Copen. Instead, it will focus on in-showroom sales pitches. It will dispatch specialized staff to dealers, and later this month, the company is to open its first directly run showroom.

     The facility, to be called Copen Local Base Kamakura, will be located south of Tokyo in the city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. 

     Yet another plan is to allow Copen owners to visit Daihatsu's main plant in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture. Mitsui said the idea is to enhance consumer confidence by showing who actually makes the cars.

     The new Copen, which has a continuously variable transmission, will sell for about 1.79 million yen.  

     Honda Motor, meanwhile, plans to release a new mid-engine minivehicle in 2015. As in race cars and some sports cars, the engine will be positioned between the front and rear axles. Tentatively called the S660 Concept, the car is reportedly a successor to Honda's Beat open-top minivehicle that was suspended in 1995. 

     Suzuki Motor in January released a sport utility minivehicle called the Hustler. The model's round headlamps give it a unique look that seems to have wide appeal. Even after Japan's consumption tax was hiked at the beginning of April, monthly sales beat the company's target by 20%. Suzuki plans to expand production at its Kosai Plant in Shizuoka Prefecture soon.


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