Roppongi's Ativa - Why Japan's wealthy love the Mercedes-Benz G-Class so much
Hans · Jan 25, 2023 03:03 PM
Daihatsu Rocky’s and Toyota Raize’s combined figures would’ve made it Japan’s best-selling non-kei car for 2022
Between the '90s and 2000s, Mercedes-Benz made multiple proposals to end sales of the ageing G-Class and merge it with its other SUVs
Demand from Japan halted the proposals as Japan buys 1 in every 8 new G-Class sold worldwide
In the ‘80s, when hot money was flooding Japan and the Toyota Corolla was Japan's best-selling car, the E30 BMW 3 Series was known in Japan as the Roppongi Corolla. Roponggi is Japan’s equivalent to USA’s Beverly Hills and UK’s Knightsbridge – it’s the neighbourhood of Japan’s elites, and the most common car in Roppongi then was not the Toyota Corolla, but the E30 BMW 3 Series. Hence the nickname Roppongi Corolla.
Fast forward to today’s Roppongi, SUVs have taken over sedans, and the Mercedes-Benz G-Class is now the definitive car for Roppongi.
If you were to zoom out of the microcosm of Roppongi’s flashy display of wealth and look at Japan as a whole, the most popular car (nevermind SUV or not) there is the Toyota Raize and Daihatsu Rocky twins, better known to us as the Perodua Ativa.
The Japan Automobile Dealers Association (JADA), which compiles registration figures for non-kei cars, lists the Toyota Yaris as Japan’s best-selling car of 2022, at 168,557 units, but this is including the B-segment SUV Yaris Cross and the GR Yaris (which also includes a 1.5L NA CVT variant).
We don’t know what the breakdown figures of these Yaris derivative models are, but estimates put the Yaris Cross at more than half of total Yaris sales, so let’s say it’s around 80,000 units.
Perodua Ativa’s Japanese brothers are Japan’s most popular non-kei car
If the Toyota Raize and Daihatsu Rocky is to be grouped like how the Yaris Cross is grouped with other Yaris-derived models, it would’ve totaled 105,843 units last year, confidently putting it ahead as Japan’s best-selling non-kei car model(s). And this not including the Subaru Rex.
The best-selling car in Japan is the Honda N-Box kei minicar, with 202,197 units delivered in last year.
But if you are to hangout in Roppongi, the most common car prowling on the streets there is not the Raize-Rocky, but the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
Mercedes-Benz is Japan’s most popular import brand, at 52,391 units (16.9 percent of the imported car segment), ahead of Volkswagen’s 32,229 units (10.4 percent market share), and BMW (30,887 units, excluding MINI, 9.9 percent).
The best-selling model for Mercedes-Benz Japan is the C-Class, at 14,111 units last year, making it the No.1 selling imported car in Japan. Nothing surprising with that, but the three-pointed star's next best-selling model in Japan will blow all other Mercedes-Benz importers elsewhere out of competition.
Unlike other countries, Japan's second best-selling Mercedes-Benz is not the A-Class or E-Class, but the G-Class, at 4,807 units.
The figure would’ve been a lot higher if not for supply chain issue limiting deliveries. There is now a 1-year waiting list for the G-Class in Japan.
To put things into perspective. Japan sells nearly as many G-Class as BMW Japan sells the 3 Series (5,117 units).
Japan is the reason Mercedes-Benz couldn’t discontinue the G-Class
The G-Class is Mercedes-Benz’s Porsche 911 – an icon that can never be changed and its loyal fanbase will only accept minor tweaks and improvements to the 4 decades old design.
But unlike the Porsche 911, the G-Class didn’t start out as an emotional, fashionable product. It’s a 4x4 military-focused vehicle. When it was introduced in 1979, then known as the G-Wagen, it’s was just an utility vehicle, bought by fleet customers rather than private buyers.
Wealthy owners would much prefer a Range Rover than this Mercedes-Benz-badged equivalent of a Land Rover Defender / Toyota Land Cruiser. USA is the world's largest market for luxury cars but Americans weren't really interested in the G-Class until recently. The G-Class has been around since 1979 but it was only until the 2000s when Americans warmed up to the G-Class.
It was around this time when there was renewed interest in classic 4x4s like the Land Rover Defender and BJ- and FJ-series Toyota Land Cruisers.
Toyota reacted by releasing the retro-inspired FJ Cruiser. Mercedes-Benz, which had been maintaining a sharp tab on the market's pulse also noted the shift. It quickly updated the G-Class with modern amenities and more importantly, released AMG versions of the military 4x4.
Japanese celebrities and sports figures started appearing in public in a G-Class and soon, it became the coolest car to be seen in. A famous boxer and a sumo wrestler both had one, thus lending credibility to the G-Class' image as a strong, masculine car.
With a Mercedes-Benz badge, the G-Class is also a more polished example of an American Hummer because it looks quite at home at the Grand Hyatt Roppongi's car park.
That's quite a shift from how the G-Class was seen as in the decades before, when it was known as the Gelandewagen and product planners at Mercedes-Benz pushed forward multiple proposals to merge the G-Class with Mercedes-Benz’s other SUV models. On paper, it made sense. Why spend money in trying to modernize a military 4x4 when its civilian role is now overlapping with several Mercedes-Benz SUVs.
The first was an attempt to merge it with the ML-Class (now known as the GLE), then still a ladder-frame chassis SUV, like the G-Class.
Later, there was another proposal to merge the G-Class with the GL-Class, now known as the GLS.
Urban legend in the automotive industry says that when the decision to drop the G-Class was shared with Mercedes-Benz Japan, the local planning team and dealers kicked up such a big fuss that they forced Mercedes-Benz’s board to reverse the decision.
Japan buys enough G-Classes every year to stand up and bang their fists on tables of Mercedes-Benz’s headquarters in Stuttgart to state their demands.
We don't know how true is this but what we know is that when the second generation W463 G-Clss was launched in 2018, it looked nearly identical to previous generation model, except for modern LED headlights, MBUX infotainment, and cleaner engines.
Mercedes-Benz didn’t reveal its total deliveries of the G-Class for 2022 but we know that in 2021, the Magna Steyr’s plant in Graz, Austria built 41,174 units of the G-Class and 5,379 units were shipped to Japan.
This means that Japan bought 1 in every 8 new G-Class sold worldwide.
Why Japan is Mercedes-Benz’s biggest market for the G-Class?
Aside from Japan, Korea and the Middle East are also among Mercedes-Benz’s biggest customers for its top-end AMG and Maybach models – and customers there love the G-Class just as much.
But Japanese buyers loved the G-Class more than anyone else, more than Arab oil Sheikhs and sons of Korean chaebols.
Japan’s love for boxy styling - the same reason why Roppongi residents in the ‘80s loved the E30 3 Series - is probably why the G-Class struck the right note among wealthy Japanese fans.
Japan loves and appreciate cars that standout from the traffic of Honda N-Boxes. The fact that Japan is the world’s biggest importer of the Jeep Wrangler puts the G-Class’ popularity in context. Buyers will open their wallet for iconic looking cars that stand out from the rest.
Closer to home, Mercedes-Benz Malaysia sells the G-Class only on special order basis so you can’t walk into a Mercedes-Benz dealer and ask to test drive one. Our smaller market means that there is not enough buyer for dealers to keep stock of a G-Class.
Mercedes-Benz Malaysia’s official price list now only has the AMG G63, at RM 1,788,888. The G350d was previously offered for RM999,888.
Just don't think the G-Class is the ultimate 4x4 though, because it's now more of a fashion accessory than anything else, as the next article below explain: