Why Nobody In Japan Buys GM's Cars

I have discovered the most depressing job in the entire global automotive industry. (No, not Chief Fuel Economy Engineer at Lamborghini. Even worse.) It's being a Chevrolet and Cadillac salesperson in Japan.

While America has been faithfully gobbling up Japanese cars for decades now — to the point where there were legitimate fears in the 1980s and 90s that they would somehow destroy domestic-based automakers — the reverse has long been true in Japan, where "imports" have always had a tough time.

This report in Automotive News sheds some light on that situation. Last year about 5.38 million cars were sold in Japan, but only a depressing 1,200 of those were Chevrolets and Cadillacs. The most they ever sold was 47,000 cars in 1996, which included Opel.

The country's biggest GM dealer, Yanase & Co., doesn't even need the 1.4 percent of sales volume the American brands provide because they're also Japan's biggest Mercedes-Benz seller. But they keep GM around for "sentiment, nostalgia," and "the small expectation that GM will be back," their CEO said.

Premium imports like Audi and Mercedes are on the rise in Japan, and the hope is that Cadillac will be able to ride that wave too. (And unlike the U.S.' infamous chicken tax, Japan has no tariffs on imported cars.)

But as AN notes, only two cars, the Sonic and Captiva SUV, are right-hand drive to suit the preferences of Japanese consumers.

GM has factories in right-hand-drive countries, but their vehicles often don't fit Japan. Australia's passenger cars are too big; South Africa churns out mostly trucks; England's small cars find it hard to compete in Japan's crowded small-car market. India's operations are just getting started.

[...] It's a chicken-and-egg problem. It's often not worthwhile to introduce a right-hand-drive version because sales are so low. And sales are so low in part because there are no right-handers.

Japan remains the world's third-largest car market, though domestic sales there have slowed in recent years with just 0.1 percent growth in 2013 over the previous years. And in the U.S., Japanese automakers are more American than ever, with 70 percent of their cars sold here also being made in North America.

Maybe it doesn't matter that much. Cadillac is more focused on gaining a foothold in Europe anyway, and that may be a more realistic and lucrative target.

Can GM find a way to succeed in Japan, or is not that big a deal if they don't?