It’s no secret the Japanese marketplace has never made room for American automobiles. Western cars have a serious image problem in the Land of the Rising Sun, compounded by an exceptionally high cost of entry that prohibits outside companies from wanting to risk establishing an extensive dealer network. The end result is a handful of American cars being sold every year — primarily in boutique shops as novelty items.
The exceptions are premium offerings from Europe and Jeep. That isn’t to suggest that Jeep products are common place in Japan but they are one of the few domestic offerings that have achieved any kind of sales consistency or growth within the country. It’s carving out a small place for itself in the Eastern market and putting other American brands to shame.
Jeep has a storied history in Japan. In the mid-nineties, it was mixing it up with other domestic brands — made more viable by a favorable exchange rate. A few years later, foreign automakers saw their already meager sales dwindling to practically nothing and some (Ford for instance) pulled out of the country entirely. But Jeep held on and became America’s number one brand in Japan.
That still places it as 20th overall. But with Chevrolet, America’s second most-popular brand in the country, selling fewer vehicles per year than most supercar manufacturers, Jeep is doing comparatively well — even if it only moved 6,344 vehicles through August.
However, last year, Jeep saw 9,392 Japanese deliveries — a 31.7 percent improvement over 2015’s summary. It has also made inroads within China as it strives to be a globally relevant brand. It’s not king of the mountain in Asia but it’s definitely finding footholds and making progress as other outsiders plummet to their deaths. What is it doing differently?
According to Automotive News, catering to the Japanese population has been a large part of its success. In 2009 Jeep was averaging around 1,000 annual units. But eight years of consecutive growth have more than octupled that figure. During that time, the brand has ensured owners can find its products with right-hand drive, factory-installed Japanese navigation systems, and modified powertrains that take advantage of the country’s eco-car incentives.
It has also bolstered its marketing output significantly. American brands rarely advertise their vehicles in mainstream Japanese media but Jeep has doubled its advertising budget for the country.
“American cars have a bad image — they aren’t fuel-efficient, they break down,” said Japanese-born American automobile enthusiast Yoshihiro Masui in February. “That’s not really true anymore, but dealers don’t make an effort to convince people. I’ve never seen a TV commercial. You go to a car show, they’re not there.”
Jeep is the exception. It returned to the Tokyo Motor Show in 2015 and has spent the last few years expanding its dealer network. It has also been refurbishing its old showrooms to create a desirable ambiance for prospective customers.
“We have to spend money and engineering hours to do it, but we think it’s worth it,” FCA Japan CEO Pontus Haggstrom told Automotive News. He said another upgraded Jeep showroom will be opening in central Japan city this year, but Fiat Chrysler is aiming to refurbish 50 existing stores by the end of 2018.
“It’s more about the brand and less about the origin,” he continued. “In previous stores, it was very much the U.S. dealership transplanted in Japan.”
At some of the dealerships Haggstrom says there will be large parking lots (a luxury in Japan’s urban areas), flattering lighting, large windows, updated air conditioning, modernized service centers, and attendants waiting on customers to take drink orders. Jeep wants to create a premium experience on par with European luxury brands, because those are now its main rivals within the region.