The 37th Tokyo Motor Show opens to the public Saturday in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, and the auto industry hopes the 12-day event will help stimulate the Japanese market.

The domestic car market expanded slightly this year thanks to new models. January-September car sales totaled 3.56 million units, up 3.5 percent from a year earlier.

But domestic demand is expected to remain flat or even decline in the long run as the nation’s population grays, the economy sputters along and competition intensifies.

Rivalry in the minivan market is already getting fierce, as major carmakers launched seven new or fully redesigned models this year, including the Toyota Wish, the Mitsubishi Grandis, the Nissan Presage and the Honda Odyssey.

Nobuyoshi Yoshida, an industry watcher who runs Automobile Business Practice Institute Inc., said the novelty and impact of the new models will not last long, so carmakers must focus on quality and innovation to survive.

“Carmakers have introduced various minivans with new touches,” Yoshida said. “But sales will probably cool down in three to six months, so I don’t think they will feel secure” by just relying on new models.

Vehicles slated for the motor show include Nissan Motor Co.’s C-Note luxury compact, featuring a spacious and high-grade interior, and Honda Motor Co.’s ASM large minivan equipped with a gasoline-electric hybrid system.

The motor show, which is one of the largest in the world, will also target overseas consumers, especially those of the United States, the world’s largest auto market.

Japanese carmakers have increased their market share at the expense of the Big Three U.S. automakers — General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group, part of the German-American auto giant DaimlerChrysler AG.

Combined sales by Japanese carmakers in the U.S. between January and September rose 3.5 percent from the same period last year to 3.68 million units, accounting for 29.1 percent of the market. The Big Three’s combined sales, meanwhile, fell 3.9 percent to 7.79 million units.

Experts say Japanese automakers are doing well in the U.S. because they can offer at reasonable prices sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks that exceed the quality of their rivals.

“(The Japanese) SUVs are as comfortable as sedans,” Yoshida of ABPI said.

Sales in the U.S. of the Lexus RX330, known as the Harrier in Japan, rose 21 percent from a year earlier to 66,015 units during the January-September period, according to Toyota Motor Corp. The model was redesigned in March.

Honda increased its U.S. sales by 11.2 percent to 1.05 million units in the same period, thanks to brisk sales of the MDX sport utility vehicle and the redesigned Accord sedan.

But the recent sharp rise in the yen against the dollar has clouded Japanese carmakers’ U.S. sales outlook.

The U.S. auto industry has been one of the most vocal critics against the Japanese government’s massive currency market intervention. Japan has spent more than 13 trillion yen in dollar-buying operations this year to keep the yen from rising.

Leaders of the Big Three are expected to heighten their offensive during the motor show. Not only will they discuss their strategies but also their concerns over the exchange-rate issue while in Japan.

GM and Ford executives now in Japan ahead of the official opening of the motor show in fact already criticized the government, during a Tuesday news conference, for trying to stem the yen’s appreciation against the dollar.

The greenback fell to around 109 yen in early October from around 117 yen a month ago. A stronger yen hurts Japanese export-oriented firms like carmakers by making their products more expensive abroad.

Koji Endo, an industrial analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston Securities (Japan) Ltd., noted that Japanese companies may have to raise the prices of models sold in the U.S. if the yen keeps rising, dampening their upbeat business there.

“Japanese carmakers may raise model prices at the end of March to cope with the stronger yen,” Endo said, noting that car prices are usually re-evaluated in October and March.

But if U.S. consumer demand, which has dropped 1.7 percent in the January-September period from a year earlier, remains bleak, Japanese carmakers may refrain from raising prices and incur losses from the exchange-rate factor, he said.

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