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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Boxy, Boring Astro Wins Japan Hearts

TOKYO -- For years, U.S. carmakers have been struggling to sell cars in Japan.

They've moved steering wheels to the right-hand side; introduced compact designs to fit the nation's narrow streets; tried to develop their own dealership networks -- only to see their share of the market remain minute.

So imagine their surprise when the Chevy Astro, a boxy, low-tech van with a steering wheel on the wrong side became Japan's U.S. favorite.

"We never expected this,'' said Seiko Nishida, a spokeswoman for General Motors Japan.

Designed by GM 15 years ago, and largely ignored back home, Astro is idolized by some of Japan's young consumers. It even set off a trend in Japan's RV, or recreational vehicle, market.

Consider Masahiro Yanagidaira, 31, one of the car's typical affluent yuppie fans.

When he recently entered a Tokyo dealership, he headed straight toward an Astro.

"This car's cool,'' he said, climbing into a navy Astro Tiarra Royal Star.

Grabbing the steering wheel, looking into the rear view mirror, and gazing around the backseat, he said: "I don't mind left-hand drive. There is plenty of space for my diving gear.''

Like thousands of other people in this country, famous for jam-packed cities and tiny homes, Yanagidaira believes the big, breadbasket of a car offers him the feel of the United States' big city life and a mobile living room.

Oddly enough, GM doesn't import many Astros to Japan. In fact, about 80 percent of them are imported through a shadowy network of independent importers known as the "gray market.''

Exact sales figures are not available, but dealers and analysts say an estimated 14,000 to 15,000 Astros were sold in Japan last year, making it the nation's most popular American vehicle. Chevy Cavalier, distributed by Toyota Motor Corp. dealers, was next with 12,000, followed by Jeep Cherokee with nearly 10,000.

Prices of the Astro leader range from 2 million yen ($16,528) for a used model to 5.49 million yen for the top-end, brand-new Tiarra.

Japanese-language magazines such as A-Cars and Daytona have huge advertising sections for used and new Astros. And they often show what a cult car it has become.

"Astro serves a special niche,'' said Stephen Volkmann, an automotive analyst for Morgan Stanley Japan.

Some of Japan's top carmakers are trying to follow suit, introducing similar-looking RVs. They include Toyota's Granvia, Nissan's Caravan Elgrand and Isuzu's Fargo Filly.

General Motors, Ford and Chevy have been selling cars in Japan for years, but the import market remains dominated by European producers. Last year, German carmakers such as Mercedes Benz sold about 200,000 units, nearly four times the Big Three figures combined, says the Japan Automobile Importers Association.

The Astro phenomenon may not mean much to GM globally, but it could still provide a lesson about Japan, Volkmann said.

"The example could contribute a lot to American carmakers in terms of changing their market strategy for sales in Japan,'' he said. "It shows that Japanese consumer needs are diverse, and that the right American cars do have a chance.''