YOKOHAMA — With Nissan Motor Co. and its French partner Renault SA looking to expand their clout through a new cross-sharing deal with Germany’s Daimler AG, the big question is: who is next in the realignment of the global auto industry?
In Japan, experts say eyes are on Honda Motor Co., the nation’s second-largest automaker, although it has so far shown no indication of ditching its trademark go-it-alone policy.
Pressure has been heavy on carmakers to pursue expansion of scale to save on development costs of highly expensive green technology and to secure their foothold in fast-growing emerging markets by offering affordable compacts.
In the latest agreement, the Nissan-Renault alliance and Daimler will mutually swap 3.1 percent in shares to cooperate in the development of next-generation compact cars and to share fuel-efficient engine technology.
Just a few months earlier, Suzuki Motor Corp. inked a capital tieup with Volkswagen AG, as the German automaker seeks to expand its presence in India, where Suzuki has established a solid presence, while the Japanese automaker turns to Volkswagen’s expertise in developing environmentally friendly vehicles.
“It costs a lot to develop wide-ranging technologies, and there is no clear favorite among the scattered environmental technologies, including electric vehicles and hybrids,” said Takashi Akiyama, vice president of SC-ABeam Automotive Consulting.
“Also, with the rapid expansion of emerging markets, it’s hard for an automaker to make it on its own,” he said. “Expansion of scale is necessary for survival, and further realignment in the industry is anticipated.”
With dwindling choices for cross-border alliances, attention has naturally fallen on Honda, one of the strongest players in the industry. The automaker has continued to eke out profits, even as most auto giants sank into the red after the financial crisis hit in 2008.
“You need great energy to reach an understanding with an alliance partner and time is quickly lost during that process,” Fumihiko Ike, Honda’s head of Asia and Oceania operations, recently told reporters. “It’s faster to do it alone.”
But analysts said even Honda, which sells the Fit compact and the Insight hybrid, may eventually need to shift course and look outside as rivals pose a rising threat by becoming bigger and more cost-efficient.
“There is no need to immediately join forces since its products, centering on compact cars, are selling well,” said Shigeru Matsumura, an auto analyst at SMBC Friend Research Center. “But Honda will probably not be able to stay the way it is as others form alliances and boost their cost competitiveness.”
Tatsuya Mizuno, a former auto analyst at Fitch Ratings in Tokyo and current representative of consulting firm Mizuno Credit Advisory, also suggested Honda may ally with South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. in a shakeup that he predicted will consolidate the industry into five major automotive groups.
The dramatic shift in the global auto sector also comes as an unprecedented safety crisis pounds the carefully cultivated reputation of Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s largest carmaker.
With global sales of nearly 8 million vehicles, Toyota remains ahead in terms of both scale and product lineup with minicar maker Daihatsu Motor Co. and truck maker Hino Motors Ltd. under its wing.
A pioneer in gas-electric hybrid technology, it also has close ties with Mazda Motor Corp. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., which makes the Subaru brand and is owned 16.5 percent by Toyota.
Yet, the current story of Toyota includes a series of safety lapses, which its president, Akio Toyoda, has blamed on an aggressive drive for volume at the expense of product quality.
“The advantages of scale are huge and will need to be pursued as they become increasingly important,” Mizuno said. “But as the scale becomes bigger, the question is whether you can maintain strong management.”
Despite the hype over the emergence of new alliances, deals have frequently collapsed in the past, including the breakup of Daimler and Chrysler Group LLC.
“When we came together with Chrysler, we were in agreement about the merger, but we hadn’t had much thought about content of collaboration,” Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche said at a news conference in Brussels, emphasizing that the relationship with Renault and Nissan will be “totally different.”
Nissan President Carlos Ghosn, who concurrently serves as chief executive officer of Renault, said the “strategic cooperation” with Daimler — not to be mistaken with an alliance — will be long-term, while the pursuit of scale will continue as Nissan and Renault vie to become the No. 1 automotive group.
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