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GM will export more vans to boost sales in Japan


TOKYO -- General Motors Corp. will export a Georgia-made right-hand-drive van to Japan in 1996 as part of a broad plan to boost annual vehicle sales here from 17,400 to 100,000 units by the end of the decade, the company's chief executive John Smith Jr. said yesterday at a brief stopover in Japan.

The minivans to be exported -- the Chevrolet Lumina APV, Oldsmobile Silhouette, and Pontiac Trans Sport -- are currently built in North Tarrytown, N.Y. They are smaller, feature a more aerodynamic design and handle more like passengers cars than the midsize Astro and Safari vans that GM produces at its Baltimore assembly plant.

General Motors is scheduled to shift production of its front-wheel-drive minivans to Doraville, Ga., next year.

The GM minivans have recently developed a cult status in Japan with about 1,000 sold through General Motors authorized outlets and thousands of others coming in through unaffiliated "gray market" dealers in response to strong demand.

Unofficial and official sales combined likely make these vehicles among the most popular U.S. exports to Japan. Enthusiasm, however, is dampened by a price more than double what is charged in the United States, and a left-side steering configuration that makes driving awkward, and access through a street-side passenger door dangerous.

Only 2 1/2 years ago, the heads of Ford, Chrysler and GM arrived in Japan accompanying then-President Bush to complain about a Japanese market all but impenetrable to foreigners.

But Mr. Smith, who has since become head of the giant auto manufacturer, spoke optimistically about prospects in Japan. The recent strong rise in the yen "has done more to level field between Japanese and U.S. companies than all of the rhetoric and policy initiatives of the previous twenty years," he said.

Not far from where Mr. Smith spoke in downtown Tokyo, trade negotiators from the United States and Japan have recently been meeting in yet another round of largely unfruitful discussions.

Among the most difficult and inconclusive talks have concerned the automotive sector, an area both countries view as particularly important because of its position as the largest single factor in Japan's merchandise trade surpluses with the United States and because of its wider impact on each nation's domestic economy.

Mr. Smith said that if Japan does not open its markets, the yen will continue to strengthen, damaging Japanese exporters.

In the past year, Mr. Smith said, GM's sales into Japan increased 27.4 percent but the total number of units is still almost negligible compared with the millions of cars Japan exports to the United States. .

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