Meanwhile, Daihatsu, the newest Japanese entrant here, remains almost invisible in the U.S. car market.
"Daihatsu is having a very difficult time developing any kind of image or consumer awareness about their products," said Chris Cedergren, an automotive analyst with J. D. Power & Associates, an Agoura Hills automotive market research firm.
Daihatsu's biggest problem is simple--it can't ship many cars from Japan because of import quotas.
When the Japanese government imposed the quotas in 1981, it gave each of the major Japanese auto makers already in the American market a share of the quota system's allowable shipments.
So when Daihatsu sought to enter the market, it had to pry loose a tiny piece of the quota allocations from the bigger firms; it was only marginally successful. Today, Daihatsu is only allowed to import about 12,000 cars a year.
With such a limited supply, Daihatsu can barely support a nationwide marketing, distribution and dealer organization. A year after its entry, in fact, Daihatsu's only model--the Charade mini-car--is still not available in the Northeast, Midwest or Northwest.
"The big factor for us is quotas," said Ronald Foreman, a spokesman for Daihatsu. At the same time, he conceded, "the company has taken awhile to create an image or an identity for the car. The Charade is like a lot of other cars in a lot of respects, and the average consumer tends to view it as comparable to any number of small, two-door hatchbacks." Next year, the firm should have its Rocky utility vehicle on the market, plus a four-door version of the Charade. But there is little more Daihatsu can do to expand as long as quotas remain in place.
Needs Part of Quota Back
Suzuki faces the same hurdle as it tries to cross over from trucks to cars. While it was successful in the utility vehicle market with the Samurai, Suzuki has had little luck so far with its new Swift subcompact car. The problem: its dealers have almost no cars to sell.
Introduced this fall, the Swift is similar to the Geo Metro that Suzuki builds for General Motors. In fact, until recently, all of Suzuki's car quota allowance went to GM; now analysts say, Suzuki must get some of it back.
But under the current quota system, Suzuki is only allowed to bring into the United States 10,000 Swift models annually. The company hopes to expand that if quotas are extended beyond March 31--the end of the current quota year--according to Laura Segall, spokeswoman for Suzuki.
But so far, Swift shipments from Japan have been small and often delayed, Segall acknowledged. "Our sales are not what they should be at this point," she said. "Of course our sales are low because we hardly have any cars to sell."
Suzuki's supply problems will be relieved next spring, when its Canadian joint venture plant with GM opens and begins producing the Swift and Suzuki's new Sidekick utility vehicle.
But the ability of the smaller Japanese firms to compete with the industry's giants in the 1990s remains in doubt. Analysts don't believe that any of the smaller firms will drop out completely, but merged distribution and dealer networks are likely.
"Some of the little guys have had to face the reality that the cost of being in this market is a higher hurdle than they figured, especially now that the situation has been compounded by the yen," Pochiluk said. "The question now is, will there be enough shelf space for all these brands? The best thing may be for them to forge alliances with the bigger players."