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Auto "action plan' yields little action

Nine months after President Bush declared that his trade mission to Tokyo had yielded a milestone agreement to sell 20,000 more American cars in Japan every year, one major deal to implement the accord appears to have gone off track.

A deal between the world's two largest carmakers, under which Toyota would sell General Motors cars to the Japanese public, had been hailed by Bush's aides during the ill-fated January trip as a prime example of how the administration was coming home with what the president had termed "jobs, jobs, jobs" for Americans.

For most Americans, the content of what Bush called "agreements" _ for different reasons, both Japanese and American industry officials said later that they were not really agreements at all _ were lost amid various distractions.

The most vivid was Bush's collapse at a state dinner, but there was also the much-criticized performance of his traveling companions, the highly paid chief executives of Detroit's Big Three automakers facing off against their more modestly compensated Japanese counterparts.

In the ensuing nine months the "action plans" adopted during the visit have yielded mixed results. While sales of the Big Three's cars in Japan seem unchanged this year, American auto-parts makers have said that they are encouraged by a tremendous increase in the number of inquiries from Japanese makers, particularly Toyota.

Moreover, the number of American-made cars shipped to Japan is rising _ though not the cars Bush had in mind when he began the visit-turned-trade mission here. Most are Japanese-name cars produced in the North American plants of Japan's biggest auto companies and shipped back to Japanese consumers. Honda seems likely to sell more than 20,000 American-made Accords in Japan this year, and Toyota said recently that it would sell 700 American-made Camrys a month in the Japanese market.

"Legally, Japanese-badged cars made in America contribute to the goal in the action plan," said an American official dealing with Japanese trade issues. "But politically, they don't contribute much."

Indeed, the symbolic centerpiece of the effort was expected to be an arrangement between General Motors and Toyota that would have given GM access to the largest car sales network in Japan. Earlier, Toyota officials had talked of selling 5,000 GM cars a year.

But this week Tatsuro Toyoda, the company's president, said that "talks with GM regarding the sales of GM cars have not made progress."

Toyoda, a member of the firm's founding family, blamed GM for backing away from the effort in recent months because it did not want to undercut Yanase & Co., the importing agent it has used in Japan for 70 years.

"In consideration for the company," Toyoda was quoted by Asahi Shimbun, a leading daily, as saying, "GM is avoiding establishing another sales channel." But he said that Toyota still remained interested in "helping any way we can" and noted that it had put on a large exhibition of GM cars in Tokyo this summer.

GM estimates that its sales in Japan this year will be about what they were last year, hovering around 10,000, a tiny sliver of a market of more than 7 million new cars a year. Bodkin did say, however, that the company expected about a 10 percent increase in sales of car parts here, a business that has grown rapidly for a decade.

Even if the General Motors-Toyota sales effort had gone ahead, it was highly doubtful that the American carmakers would have seen the kind of advances Bush and Japan's prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, talked about in January.

Sales of all cars and trucks in Japan are down more than 6 percent, an effect of the enormous slowdown in the Japanese economy and a new conservatism among once free-spending Japanese consumers.

There are some signs of progress, however. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. is reportedly talking to Chrysler about selling the American company's new LH models here. Ford, meanwhile, has purchased a larger share of its distributor here, Autorama, and seems to be paving the way for greater exports to Japan.

And all three of the American carmakers have vowed to make the change that most embarrassed the president's aides: the failure of the Big Three to manufacture right-hand drive vehicles for export to Japan, where motorists drive on the left of the road. No one knows how long it will be, however, before those cars begin to roll out of Big Three factories.