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Toyota Motor Corp., already falling behind competitors in China’s car market, is encountering a backlash from Chinese media over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s endorsement of its new Mirai fuel cell sedan.

The automaker will face “turbulence” in its China sales after delivering its first hydrogen-powered Mirai to Abe earlier this month, according to a report on the websites of Xinhua, the state-backed news agency, and the People’s Daily.

Abe told reporters the Mirai was “very comfortable” after a Jan. 15 test drive at his official residence, and said he wants all ministries and agencies to have it.

Toyota’s weak position in China poses a threat to its status as the world’s largest carmaker, with Volkswagen AG bolstering its already-dominant position there by opening another assembly plant this year. Toyota also is dealing with threats by local dealers to drop out of its distribution network over poor sales and profitability.

The automaker missed its sales projection of 1.1 million units in China in 2014, even as the Corolla and Levin compacts helped boost sales 13 percent to 1.03 million units. Toyota ranks sixth among global automakers in China and sells less than one-third as many vehicles as General Motors Co. and Volkswagen in China.

Japanese sales have been vulnerable to geopolitical tensions with China, putting them at a disadvantage versus foreign carmakers. Toyota has suffered from bilateral disputes over the Senkaku Islands and Abe’s official visits to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.

“Measures Abe has taken over issues of Yasukuni Shrine and Diaoyu Islands has made the Sino-Japanese relationship very delicate,” the report said, using China’s name for the disputed isles. “Therefore, the endorsement is very likely to lead to turbulence in Toyota’s sales in China.”

Toyota spokeswoman Shino Yamada said it aims to work with agencies and companies to promote a “hydrogen-based society,” a phrase Abe has used to describe Japan’s pivot from nuclear power since the Fukushima disaster.

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