WITH their home market entering its fifth year of recession, Japanese carmakers are searching for something - anything - to bring customers back to the showroom.
''Japanese customers are looking for something new and different,'' says Honda Motor Company president Nobuhiko Kawamoto.
Honda defines different as the new CR-V. The vehicle was introduced in mid-October, and sales are running three times higher than expected. So next month the automaker will add a second shift at the CR-V plant, nearly doubling production.
The Japanese define the CR-V as a ''recreational vehicle,'' but by US standards, it would be considered a subcompact sport-utility vehicle - at least until you looked underneath. Then you'd discover the CR-V is based on the same passenger-car platform as Honda's Civic subcompact, rather than the truck-like chassis used for a conventional ''sport-ute.''
There's a trade-off. The CR-V isn't designed for the same rugged, off-road driving. On the other hand, it gets better gas mileage than a true sport-ute, and it's more comfortable on paved roads - where it's really likely to be driven. Few Japanese motorists ever stray off-road.
''RVs are what's happening,'' says Chris Redl, an auto analyst with the Tokyo branch of Baring Securities. ''They're the only segment happening right now'' in an otherwise stagnant market, he says.
Last year's big hit was the Toyota RAV4, another car-truck hybrid. And so now, everyone wants to get into the act. Of 40 products and prototypes displayed at this year's Tokyo Motor Show, 26 fell into the broad RV category, which also includes minivans.
MAZDA called its BU-X concept car a ''multipurpose compact car,'' but it's another hybrid, a cross between a sport-ute and a station wagon. The Mazda SU-V stands taller and has more traditional sport-ute styling, but both vehicles sit on the same platform the Mazda 323 sedan uses. The Isuzu Deseo may look like a sport-ute, but it's targeted at the same Japanese buyers who'd go for compact luxury cars.
A decade ago, recreational vehicles accounted for just 10 percent of Japan's motor-vehicle market. This year, they will top 25 percent. Analysts aren't quite sure how much the segment will grow, but consider the US example. In 1982, light trucks - which include sport-utes, minivans and pickups - captured only 20 percent of the market. This year, the number is running closer to 45 percent, and many analysts believe that could top 50 percent before leveling out.
''There's a major piece of business emerging in [the Japanese RV] segment,'' noted Ford Motor Company chairman Alex Trotman after a tour of the Tokyo Motor Show this month.
Will these car-truck hybrids do as well in the United States?
''Probably not,'' cautions automotive consultant William Pochiluk, of Autofacts Inc. in Paoli, Pa. ''These vehicles have a more modest appeal.''
Subcompact sport-utility vehicles, such as the Suzuki Samurai and the Geo Tracker, account for a relatively small niche in the overall American light truck market. And wagon-minivan hybrids, such as the Mitsubishi Expo, have done little to excite consumers.
But that may be changing, if the Subaru Legacy Outback is any example. The first of the new car-sport-ute hybrids to reach the US, Outback is a modified version of the conventional Legacy wagon with a raised roof and several extra inches of ground clearance. Subaru officials originally expected Outback to garner 35 percent of total Legacy sales, but it's been running more than 75 percent.
In the coming months, Toyota's RAV4 will make its American debut, and industry sources believe Honda will introduce the CR-V in the US as well. ''It potentially could become a significant segment in the US in the next few years,'' acknowledged Ford's Mr. Trotman.
Price is one advantage. Conventional sport-utility vehicles, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Ford Explorer, run from $18,000 to $35,000, putting them out of reach of many American buyers. If the Japanese hold down prices for products like the RAV4, analysts say, they could capture customers now being forced into the used-vehicle market.
* Third in a three-part series on the auto industry in Japan. The first two parts appeared Nov. 9 and Nov. 13.