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Subaru’s record surge leads FHI to debate staying niche player

by Ma Jie and Yuki Hagiwara

Bloomberg

Which carmaker’s stock has risen the most — some fivefold — since the beginning of 2012, besides Tesla Motors Inc.? Subaru producer Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.

Profits and sales are heading toward record levels as Fuji Heavy benefits more than most other Japanese automakers from the yen’s weakening and as new models such as the BRZ sports car have grown so popular that U.S. consumers have to wait months to buy one.

The success is leading Fuji Heavy President Yasuyuki Yoshinaga to worry whether Subaru, the niche maker of all-wheel-drive vehicles, is getting too big.

“We’re standing at a major turning point for Subaru,” Yoshinaga said in an interview in Tokyo this week. “It shouldn’t just be about volume. We should be making cars only Subaru can make, which are a little more expensive and profitable than the competition.”

Debate is raging internally on whether to expand Subaru’s vehicle lineup, mount a push for cheaper cars for markets such as India’s or stick to its strong-selling models, Yoshinaga, 59, said.

Executives at Fuji Heavy, which counts Toyota Motor Corp. as its biggest shareholder, will begin discussions this month through next year to determine the long-term direction of Subaru, he said.

“Some people in the company may want to make mass-market products or cheaper cars, but is this really the right direction for Subaru?” Yoshinaga asked. “We’re not a carmaker that can grow as big as Toyota. And even if we could, reaching that sort of scale would mean we’d stop being Subaru.”

Takaki Nakanishi, founder of Nakanishi Research Institute Co. and Japan’s top-ranked auto analyst this year by Institutional Investor magazine, said Fuji Heavy would be better off staying small in the auto market.

“Subaru is a niche product,” Nakanishi said. “They have a strong partner in Toyota, which is complementing Subaru’s product development so that they can focus their strategy on being a niche player.”

While Fuji Heavy has a midterm sales target of 850,000 units by March 2016 and estimates deliveries will reach 1 million by the end of the decade, it may be racing well ahead of schedule. Sales jumped 13 percent to 724,000 units in the year through March and may rise to 752,000 in the current fiscal year, according to the company’s latest forecasts.

Among them is the BRZ, jointly developed with Toyota, which proved so popular it once had an eight-month waiting list in the U.S. Sales of the Impreza sedan, meanwhile, more than doubled last year after the company introduced a remodeled version in 2011.

And the new Forester sports utility vehicle introduced in 2012 earned the highest safety evaluation this year by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, making Fuji Heavy the only car producer with a Top Safety Pick winner in its Subaru lineup for four consecutive years, the company said.

With the business on such a roll, discussions that could put the brakes on expansion would risk missing out on record demand. Debate about preserving Subaru’s niche status also comes as the depreciating yen makes it more favorable for Japanese manufacturers to expand production at domestic plants.

Yoshinaga said turning out as many as 1 million units would be an “appropriate level” for Subaru.

Still, Fuji Heavy isn’t halting expansion. It is investing $400 million (¥38.6 billion) to expand output at its Lafayette, Indiana, factory by 100,000 units by the end of 2016, as demand rises for its cars.

For now, the firm is enjoying its salad days. Profit almost tripled to a record ¥48.5 billion last quarter and its 12.7 percent operating margin was second only to China’s Great Wall Motor Co., according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.

Analysts estimate the firm will finish fiscal 2013 earning more than Suzuki Motor Corp., which sells more than twice as many vehicles as Fuji Heavy.

Part of its recent success can be attributed to luck. Fuji Heavy’s failure to win Chinese approval to build cars in the world’s largest auto market turned into a blessing last year, after the Sino-Japanese sovereignty clash over the Senkaku Islands fueled a wave of anti-Japan protests across China. The company was largely immune to the backlash that saw Toyota, Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. report drops in their China sales in 2012.

Then there’s the yen, which has weakened against every other major currency in the past year — including 19 percent versus the dollar. In the last quarter, Fuji Heavy produced three-quarters of its vehicles at home and sold 80 percent of them overseas, mainly in the U.S. market, the reason it benefits from a weaker currency more than all its domestic rivals except for Mazda Motor Corp.

Though the yen has allowed some Japanese carmakers to sweeten their car deals — Nissan has cut prices of seven models in the U.S. — Yoshinaga said Fuji Heavy will resist following suit. The firm offers the lowest incentives among carmakers tracked by U.S. researcher Autodata Corp.

Competitors, meanwhile, are complaining. Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally in June called Japan a currency manipulator that’s giving local exporters an unfair edge.

  • phu

    As the owner of a new WRX 5-door, I’d say they should keep going as-is. Subaru is the best performance for the money: I could spend twice as much to get a BMW Z4 that might perform similarly, but it’d have zero utility despite the massive expense and additional insurance hike. At least in the US, I just don’t see a reason for Subaru to leave their excellent and highly-appreciated niche; it’d be a very sad day, at least for American driving enthusiasts.