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Honda seeks to recover U.S. market share; Mazda, Subaru grow

By Yoko Kubota

TOKYO (Reuters) - Honda Motor Co <7267.T> aims to recover market share in its biggest market the United States, where it slightly dropped in the first half of 2013, banking that its redesigned SUV will help boost sales.

The U.S. market is seeing the strongest pace of annual sales in more than five years, as the world's biggest economy picks up speed and the Federal Reserve considers tapering its stimulus program.

But in the first six months of 2013, Honda's market share has shrunk by 0.1 percentage points despite its vehicle sales jumping 6 percent from a year ago, as rivals have posted stronger growth helped by sales of light trucks.

"Pickups and SUVs are growing in the U.S. market, helping the Detroit-based carmakers... Our light-truck supply was relatively low, but we are introducing a new model," Iwamura told reporters on Wednesday. He referred to the MDX, a SUV by Honda's luxury brand Acura that went on sale in June in the United States.

Honda's truck sales rose 6 percent year-on-year in Jan-June. General Motors , the biggest carmaker in the United States, saw truck sales climb 13 percent during the same period, while No.2 Ford saw truck sales grow 14 percent.

In June, new vehicles sales in the United States rose 9 percent to 1.4 million, reaching an annual sales pace of 15.96 million vehicles, the strongest since November 2007.

General Motors and Ford both trounced expectations in their earnings releases last week.

The strong U.S. market, as well as a depreciating yen, has benefited Japanese carmakers.

The yen, which has depreciated about 20 percent against the dollar by since mid-November, has helped boost Japanese carmakers' profits and share prices as companies can convert profits made overseas at a more favorable rate and as they can export cars from Japan more profitably.

MAZDA BACK IN BLACK

Japan's third-biggest automaker Honda, which on Wednesday posted a quarterly operating profit growth of 5.1 percent year-on-year to 185.0 billion yen for April-June, said the recent weakening of the yen had helped boost profits from a year ago.

The world's top selling automaker Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> is expected to post an 84 percent year-on-year rise in operating profit to 649 billion yen ($6.5 billion) when it releases quarterly results on Friday, according to analyst forecasts.

Mazda, Japan's fifth biggest carmaker by sales, said on Wednesday that its North American business was profitable after being in the red for 16 consecutive quarters following the global financial crisis.

"We are certainly back in profit after introducing the 2.5 liter CX-5 this financial year as well as the Mazda6, and because the strong yen is being corrected," Tetsuya Fujimoto, an executive officer of Mazda, told a news conference.

The CX-5 crossover SUV, and midsize Mazda6 share common parts and have helped improve Mazda's profitability, along with the yen's depreciation. Mazda makes more than three-quarters of its vehicles in Japan and exports more than 80 percent of that.

Its global quarterly operating profit rose to 36.6 billion yen, also back to pre-financial crisis level and more than 20 times what it posted a year ago.

Wednesday's results from Fuji Heavy, the maker of Subaru cars, told a similar story. The company posted a record quarterly operating profit of 69.6 billion yen, helped by the weakening yen and its biggest market the United States where April-June sales grew 24 percent year-on-year.

EMERGING MARKETS

Besides the United States, Honda is also looking to emerging markets to meet its goal of selling 6 million vehicles a year by March 2017 from its current 4 million figure, but sounded a note of caution about unexpected swings in that market.

Sales in Thailand, Southeast Asia's biggest car market and the fourth biggest market for Honda, rose 30 percent in April-June to around 59,000 vehicles even though some other carmakers have been struggling in recent months after a boost from first-car buyers subsidies have waned.

Honda expects some cancellations of existing orders but Iwamura said the company aims to retain demand by introducing new models.

"At times we see various big unexpected moves in emerging markets so we are cautious. But automobile and motorbike demand will certainly grow there so we will continue to build foundations for success," he said.

In China, the third biggest market for Honda where Japanese carmakers have been struggling since September following a diplomatic row, it expects to boost sales with the remodeled Accord sedan and redesigned Fit subcompact set to go on sale soon. Honda aims to sell around 750,000 vehicles there in 2013, he said.

Mazda, whose sales recovery in China has lagged behind other Japanese carmakers, aims to sell 200,000 vehicles this financial year and boost sales in the world's biggest auto market with more SUVs, Fujimoto said.

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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