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Honda betting what's popular in China also sells well in Japan

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Honda Motor Co. designed the Jade minivan with the extended Chinese family in mind, appealing to the preference for space to carry relatives.

[TOKYO] Honda Motor Co. designed the Jade minivan with the extended Chinese family in mind, appealing to the preference for space to carry relatives. The automaker is pitching the same car to Japanese consumers with a twist.

Sales of the 1.5-litre engine Jade begin on Feb 13 in Japan, with a starting price of 2.72 million yen (S$31,300). Instead of emphasizing the people carrier's third-row seats to accommodate nannies and grandparents, Honda will market the flexible fold- down space for camping equipment or golf clubs, and equip the car with the anti-collision technology and hybrid powertrain found in its best-selling Fit and Vezel models.

Honda joins General Motors Co. and Volkswagen AG among automakers adapting vehicles first sold in China, the world's largest auto market, for other destinations. The trend stands in contrast to the practice of modifying US, Europe or Japan models for other markets, a reflection of China's increasing importance to carmakers for global sales.

"As long as it's still growing and the profitability is high, there's no doubt carmakers will keep introducing cars with a China focus," said Jochen Siebert, managing director at JSC Automotive Consulting. "You will still have different tweaks around the world, as there are very few elements in a car that are global."

Honda sold 63,210 Jade minivans in China last year, making it the company's best-selling model locally after the CR-V, Accord and Fit. The carmaker will also sell the gasoline Jade in other Asian markets besides China and Japan, according to its chief engineer, Yasutaka Innami.

COMPACT MINIVAN

The compact minivan will sit between the Accord and Fit in Honda's product lineup and compete with Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius Alpha in the minivan segment costing under 3 million yen.

A strong showing for the Jade in Japan would help boost confidence that Honda is gaining control over quality issues, as it had pushed back the Japan debut by two months for additional checks.

The automaker recalled a record number of vehicles last year, including its top-selling Fit compact model in Japan, which was called back five times due to software malfunctions.

That resulted in a knock-on effect that delayed other new models by as long as six months, leading President Takanobu Ito to take a 20 per cent pay cut for three months.

China is setting the pace for other automakers.

Volkswagen introduced the first Lavida, a China-only compact sedan developed with its partner SAIC Motor Corp, as early as 2008. The model became the country's top seller in 2010.

CHINA MODELS

GM unveiled a redesigned Chevrolet Cruze sedan last April in Beijing, picking China for the global debut. The model, featuring engines jointly developed by GM and SAIC, was Chevrolet's best-selling model in the country last year.

Honda plans to have introduced 12 cars in China in the three years through 2015, including five models designed specifically for the local market.

"It's a no-brainer that carmakers should factor in Chinese taste when designing new models," said Yale Zhang, managing director of researcher Autoforesight Shanghai Co.

"Chinese consumers now share the same preferences as consumers in many markets, and designed-for-China doesn't mean they have to be weird, marginal models."

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