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Suzuki may beat Daihatsu by giving up minicar lead

Suzuki will make 5.1% fewer minicars in Japan this fiscal year to focus on selling more profitable compact vehicles in Asia and Europe.

Suzuki Motor Corp. is relinquishing its ranking as the world's biggest maker of minicars, the pool-table-size autos that crowd Japan's streets, and beating No. 2 Daihatsu Motor Co. in the stock market. Daihatsu, a unit of Toyota Motor Corp., is building a new factory to expand minicar sales. So far, investors prefer the strategy of Suzuki, whose shares have surged 48% this year to become the fifth-best performer in the Nikkei 225 Stock Average. Daihatsu stock is down 12%. Demand for vehicles in India, China and Eastern Europe will rise faster than in Japan, according to Credit Suisse Securities (Japan) Ltd. Domestic sales have slumped for the past six months. „I like Suzuki because it is an aggressive company,” said Ichiro Takamatsu, who helps manage $50 million as chief investment officer at Alphex Investments Co. in Tokyo. „Investors are looking for a chance to buy companies with quality, and Suzuki is one of them.” Japan is the only country with a legally defined minicar category, and the only country where making them is profitable. The Smart minicar, made by DaimlerChrysler AG, the world's fifth-largest automaker, has never made money.

Japanese minicar sales may exceed 2 million units this year, a record, as drivers strive to cut spending on fuel and benefit from lower taxes. The growth has enticed rivals including Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motor Corp. to bring out new minicar models, stealing market share from Suzuki and Daihatsu. Suzuki, based in Hamamatsu City, southwest of Tokyo, has responded by trimming minicar production in Japan by 60,000 units over two years. Suzuki's overall domestic production will rise 2.5% to 1.16 million vehicles in the year ending March 31. Its overseas sales jumped 9.9% to 588,000 units in the five months through August. Daihatsu's sales abroad were little changed at 65,354 units. The Osaka-based company plans to raise domestic output 20% to 1.09 million units in fiscal 2007. „I chose sales and profits over market share in Japan,” Chairman Osamu Suzuki said at a press conference in August. The company announced a plan to spend 60 billion yen on a new factory to start production in 2008. The factory, to be located in Japan's Shizuoka prefecture, will not build minicars at all.

Investors are willing to pay more for Suzuki, whose shares trade at 25 times earnings. Daihatsu's price-to-earnings ratio is 14.2, slightly less than Toyota's 15.8. „Suzuki's strategy is driving the share price higher,” said Hitoshi Yamamoto, president of Tokyo-based Commerz International Capital Management (Japan) Ltd., which manages $1 billion in Japanese equities. Suzuki, also the world's third-biggest motorcycle maker, was faster than Daihatsu in expanding abroad. It was the first Japanese automaker to build vehicles in India in 1983 and owns 54% of New Delhi-based Maruti Udyog Ltd., which makes half the country's cars. Suzuki is spending ¥1 trillion to increase production in India. It is also raising capacity in Hungary and Pakistan. Auto demand in Eastern Europe may rise 6.6% to 3.05 million units in 2007 from an estimated 2.86 million, according to Credit Suisse. In China, vehicle sales may surge 13% to 7.31 million next year.

In Japan, Credit Suisse is looking for 0.7% sales growth. The only expanding categories are luxury cars – and minicars. Manufacturers introduced eight new minicar models this year. Daihatsu's revamped Move, which went on sale October 5 for as little as ¥1.02 million ($8,700), competes with Suzuki's Wagon R, which has a starting price of ¥819,000. Daihatsu is spending ¥23.5 billion ($198 million) to build a new factory to add capacity of 230,000 minicars annually. „Minicars will remain popular in Japan,” said Atsushi Kawai, a senior analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities Co. in Tokyo who rates both companies „neutral plus.” „Improved performance and designs will keep attracting users.” Minicars in Japan must have engines of 0.66 liter capacity or less, a maximum width of 1.48 meters (4.9 feet) and length of no more than 3.4 meters. That makes them easy to turn in a country where 87% of the roads have a width of 3.7 meters. Owners save 480,000 yen over five years in fuel costs and taxes compared with a compact car, according to Honda Motor Co. The cars sport yellow and black license plates. While saving customers money, minicars have lower profit margins than bigger vehicles. Suzuki aims to raise its operating profit to more than 5% of sales in the year ending March 2010, from 4.2% in fiscal 2006. Daihatsu plans to reach the same goal a year later from its operating margin of 3.6%. By contrast Toyota had a margin of 8.9%, and Nissan, Japan's second- largest carmaker, had a 9.3% margin. (Bloomberg)