By Norihiko Shirouzu
BEIJING (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>, Japan's biggest automaker by volume, has fallen to the No. 3 spot among Japanese automakers in China, due to lack of presence in a key segment – a situation experts say will likely prevail well past the middle of 2018.
Through October, Honda Motor Co <7267.T> and Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> both outsold Toyota in China, the world's biggest car market.
Toyota's sales in the first 10 months of this year totaled 1.07 million vehicles, compared with 1.16 million vehicles Honda sold during the same period. Nissan's volume through October amounted to 1.17 million vehicles.
China-market experts believe the main cause for Toyota's relative weakness lies in the lack of smallish crossover sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) that others, most notably Honda in recent months, have leveraged to accelerate growth.
Honda's sales have started to grow relatively rapidly and more consistently since 2015, after two key subcompact crossover SUVs hit the market in late 2014.
Though volume growth from these two models – the XR-V and the Vezel – have decelerated more recently, the gap was filled by the redesigned Civic car, among other models. The Civic hit the Chinese market in April last year.
However, Yale Zhang, head of Shanghai-based consultancy Automotive Foresight, isn't all that pessimistic about Toyota's sales outlook.
"Toyota's compact sedans, especially (gasoline-electric) hybrid versions of the Corolla and the Levin, are doing well," Zhang said. "That would give Toyota moderate growth in 2017 and next year, but the issue is the lack of presence" in one of the hottest segment in the Chinese auto market, he said.
If Toyota had subcompact crossover SUVs like Honda's Vezel and XR-V, "the company can generate an extra volume of 150,000 units a year at the least, which would be a pure incremental volume for Toyota since they don't offer any product in this segment today," Zhang said.
Toyota marketing and advertising officials said that gap in the company's product offerings will not be addressed by the middle of 2018.
China-market versions of the subcompact Toyota CH-R crossover SUV will likely hit showrooms in China in a June-July time frame, they said on condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak with reporters. The CH-R hit showrooms in the United States in April this year.
Toyota had no immediate and particular response to who is up and who is down in sales rankings within China. "We would like to continue to grow steadily in the Chinese market," a Beijing-based spokesman said.
(Reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu; Editing by Sunil Nair)