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bar news and views

449: German incursion
BMW is zooming along nicely in Japan despite the recession
447: Italian stallion
The new Alfa Romeo 156 GTA, Italy's answer to the sedans of Stuttgart and Bavaria
445: Finish line
Formula One arrives in Japan next weekend, and Tokyoites have a chance to check out the action
443: A la kart
Carlo Niederberger whizzes around the track for a weekend of unlicensed thrills and shrills
441: Top heavy
Daihatsu's first foray into the two-seater sports car market-the Copen
439: Biker babes
Justin Gardiner finds that Japan's bike manufacturers are getting in touch with their feminine side
437: Bubble economy
Paul Thompson recounts the tale of one man's passion for the three wheeled anachronisms whose time had returned-or so he thought
435: Ace queen
The term "Race Queen" describes the long-legged models posing at the track, but Japan's hottest F1 hope has turned the term on its head
433: Lease on life
"A new car for half the price!" screams the banner. So what's the catch?
431: Horse power
What makes an object a work of art? Can a machine be truly beautiful?
429: The X-files
Jaguar is counting on its X-TYPE compact sports sedans to woo Japan's big spenders: the working women
427: Combinations unlocked
Looking for something on the side?
425: Fancy Dress
Justin Gardiner reports on the custom car craze and shows you how to get some style of your own
423: Torque of the town
Paul Thompson comes to grips with the 29th Annual Tokyo Motorcycle Show
421: Kawaii cars
Hot on the heels of the major European manufacturers, Japanese carmakers have learned that it's cool, and profitable, to be cute. Justin Gardiner reports
419: Off the top
Spring is springing, blossoms are blossoming and the sun is nearly warm enough for some serious sunning
417: Batteries included
With the unveiling of its electric Q-Car range, Takara Co. zooms from the world of toys to that of personal transport
415: New urban mobility
Honda's new Mobilio is the perfect people mover
413: Small talk
Japanese K-cars make it to the big time
411: The big little Beemer
Join the BMW club for less
409: Cool coupe
Affordable Mercedes is no longer an oxymoron
407: Autopia in Omiya
Tycoon Hata's incredible collection classic cars
405: A Car for All Seasons
A convertible for a frosty Japanese winter?
403: Alternative American
The Alternative American - Erik Buell's White Lightning lives up to its racy reputation
400: Power Cell


German incursion

BMW is zooming along nicely in Japan despite the recession, their Japan Corp President Ludwig Willisch tells Chris Betros.

The Z4 leads the change into Japan for BMW

While there is a trend among Japanese automakers to go for kawaii cars recently, you won't find any of that at BMW. “Innovative,” “exclusive,” “joy”—those are the words the German automaker associates with its models and which have helped it achieve steady growth despite the lingering recession.

“Even in a recession, people go for quality, and that includes premium cars,” says Ludwig Wilhelm Willisch, president of BMW Japan ( since January. “We have been able to move separately from the general market trend, which is clearly downward. The small, cheap cars at the very bottom end of the market and the premium segment are growing at twice the pace of everything else. BMW has been able to avoid the stuck-in-the-middle segment.”

Statistically, most of BMW's customers are in their 40s, but the company's main focus is what it calls “young urbanites.” Women are a growing core group, particularly for the new 3-series cars and motorcycles. “We have an extremely high loyalty rate among them, which is helping us survive the recession,” says Willisch.

“BMW is all about new ideas.”

Having the MINI brand doesn't hurt, either, especially in this country of narrow streets and cramped parking spaces where the need for a car that can whizz in and out of tight spots is evident. “Yes, the MINI is about excitement. It has a different target group altogether with a marketing setup tailored for that. You will hardly ever see an ad for the MINI in a business magazine,” explains Willisch, who likes to go out and see how dealers are displaying their BMWs and MINIs. “One of my mottos is you only get one chance to give a first impression. The car business is a people business. We just don't open doors, put some cars in there and wait for customers to come in. There has to be a certain relationship.”

That relationship has been going on in Japan since 1981, when BMW first set up shop here. Currently, the company markets 38 models of cars, three different MINI models, and 13 BMW motorcycles in Japan. Last year it sold 36,266 cars and 2,801 bikes here. As of August, the BMW group held a 17 percent share of the imported car market (second behind Mercedes Benz). Its model range includes the 3-series (sedan, touring, coupe, and cabriolet), the 7-series (top-of-the-line, long-bodied sedan), X5, Z3 (roadster, coupe), Z8 and M models. From 2003, it will take over the Rolls Royce brand and offer a completely new sedan.

One reason why BMW is averse to the “cute” trend is because the life cycle of its cars is longer, says Willisch. “We don't follow any short-term trend. We follow our own design philosophy. We like to create trends ourselves but certainly not by making cute cars.” Two such new ventures are exclusive BMW credit cards and environmentally friendly cars. In 2001, the BMW Clean Energy World Tour brought to Japan the 750hL hydrogen car.

Headquartered at Makuhari in Chiba, BMW is in an ideal location. All vehicles arrive at the nearby center in Matsuo, where they go through strict inspection and pre-delivery treatment. Back-up is provided by a nearby parts center with an integrated inventory management and supply system. From there, the cars are sent to the 84 BMW dealers, 61 MINI dealers and 57 motorcycle showrooms throughout the country. Delivery time varies, but it's around eight weeks if you order a car not on the showroom floor. Cars can be ordered online, too.

The only downside to being out at Makuhari is the commuting time; Willisch, for example, spends about 60-75 minutes each day shuttling (in a BMW 745Li, of course) from his home in Seta. (“It's a good chance to study Japanese,” he reckons.) However, the location hasn't affected BMW's popularity among job seekers. Around 1,000 work for BMW in Japan, and applications still come in.

“Sometimes I like to be hands-on, other times I have to pull myself back,” Willisch says of his management style. “I'm focused on the merit system. We give each individual feedback about their performance during the year and show them a career path for the future. No one should stay in any one job for too long. You don't want someone in the same job for 15-20 years. BMW is all about new ideas.”

Photos credits: Courtesy of BMW Japan; Chris Betros