Japanese Carmakers: Ailing From An Image Problem?

When a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan earlier this year, the auto industry felt the impact almost immediately. Even American carmakers were forced to shut down plants because of part shortages. Many worried the devastation would have a lasting effect. But the car shortages many predicted aren't nearly as bad as expected. The problem is convincing American customers that the carmakers are ready for business.

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When a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Japan earlier this year, the auto industry felt the impact almost immediately. Even American carmakers were forced to shut down plants because of part shortages. Many worried the devastation would have a lasting effect. But the car shortages many predicted aren't nearly as bad as expected. The problem is convincing American customers that the carmakers are ready for business.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON: Tammy Darvish runs her family's group of car dealerships in Maryland, Virginia and Florida.

Ms. TAMMY DARVISH (Vice President, DARCARS Automotive Group): I think a lot of people really misunderstand how bad this could have been.

GLINTON: Darvish says the magnitude of the disaster in Japan was hard for her to fathom. She says while she watched the devastation in Japan, she couldn't help but wonder when it would affect the car industry here in the U.S.

Ms. DARVISH: I was very frightened in March about what kind of summer we were going to have based on availability. And quite frankly, you know, we may have a few holes here and there, but it's just not an issue.

GLINTON: Darvish says sometimes, customers have to wait for specific paint colors or trim they want, but not the long waits that were expected. Part of the reason that shortages haven't been as big an issue is that demand for Japanese cars fell below supply. Jessica Caldwell is an analyst with the automotive website edmunds.com. She says the Japanese carmakers suffered from the images of devastation.

Ms. JESSICA CALDWELL (Analyst, Edmunds.com): So I think all, you know, the negative media out there caused a lot of consumers to take pause. And you saw that not only in the sales data but also shopping data that just took a plummet for most of the Japanese automakers.

GLINTON: Caldwell says many consumers thought there would be scarcity so they stayed away from the Japanese showrooms.

Ms. CALDWELL: Enough people think that they can't get a car, or if they get a car, they're going to pay for a high price. If they don't come to the dealerships, then it becomes really a moot subject if you have no supply because you have no customers.

GLINTON: Honda as well as Toyota both changed their estimates of when they'll be back up to full production in the U.S. market. By September, the biggest of the Japanese carmakers will be back up to speed.

Mr. ED MILLER (Senior Manager, News Media and External Relations, Honda North America): Dealer inventory isn't something that the public generally knows very much about or thinks about.

GLINTON: Ed Miller is with Honda North America. He says the story of the devastation has eclipsed the story of the country's tremendous determination to make a comeback.

Mr. MILLER: As time went on, we were better able to evaluate the abilities of our part suppliers to get back up on their feet, and then the other thing was the ability of Honda's associates and our suppliers to rally and work hard as a team and, you know, accelerate the recovery process.

GLINTON: In the automotive world, there's been a lot of talk about the weakening of the Japanese carmakers and the newfound strength of the American auto industry.

At her family's dealerships, Tammy Darvish sells American, European, Korean and Japanese cars. She scoffs at the idea of the Japanese car companies being eclipsed.

Ms. DARVISH: It's almost - is it mean to say ignorant?

GLINTON: Darvish says the fact that Toyota in particular could get back up to speed in six months after such devastation means it shouldn't be messed with.

Ms. DARVISH: I think it would not be prudent for anyone to discount who Toyota is, what they are and what has made them great for so many years.

GLINTON: Analysts say the next few months will test the Japanese car industry, one, they all say, it's likely to pass.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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