Auto sales give Japan hope Car sales finally are on the rise again in Japan. The Japan Automobile Dealers Assn. reports domestic auto sales posted a 2.9% increase in January, the first significant growth in nearly three years. A 32-month sales slide was broken in November 1999 with a 0.2% gain. Sales rose to 248,433 units in January, a comeback led with strong sales from Toyota Motor Corp. Analysts say the increase may be a sign that the auto industry has seen the worst of the slump. Forecasters say the industry should expect a rise of some 2% for 2000. Additionally, sales of more expensive cars rose 17.5% to some 48,000 vehicles. This show of consumer confidence could lead to greater-than-expected gains for the automakers. Meanwhile, the 0.66L mini-vehicle market, which for the past year has been the only bright spot in Japan's automotive landscape, continues to find success. The Japan Mini Vehicle Assn. says sales in January were up 1.8% from the prior year. Mini-vehicle sales totaled 125,358 in the month, constituting about a third of overall vehicle sales.

Astra's fate up for grabs Indonesia's largest automaker, PT Astra International, is back in turmoil after a deal to buy the company by a U.S. investment group fell through. Astra's board then voted to oust Chief Executive Officer Rini Soewandi, replacing her with Theodore Rachmat, a former chief executive of Astra who also serves on Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid's economic advisory council. Insiders say Ms. Soewandi lost her job because of her opposition to the sale of a controlling 40% stake in the automaker. The failed bargaining process not only leaves Astra in the center of a national battle but also may pose a serious threat to the country's economic restructuring efforts. Negotiations with Gilbert Global Equity and Newbridge Capital hit a standstill when the group sought to conduct due diligence. The Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency, which holds the shares in question, had granted the group exclusive rights to do so as part of its preferred bidding status. Reports say Ms. Soewandi refused to cooperate with the bidder, denying access to information she said could be detrimental in the hands of competitors. Under Ms. Soewandi's leadership, Astra became the first major Indonesian corporation to restructure its debt after the country's 1997 currency devaluation rendered the automaker's foreign currency debt unpayable. Analysts expect 1999 Astra profits of $110 million, compared to a '98 net loss of $276.8 million.

Countries petition WTO over auto agreement Seven developing countries petition the World Trade Organization for an extension on implementing the Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS) pact, which they say could pose a threat to their automotive industries. The accord was signed by WTO members in 1993 and went into effect in 1995. Less industrialized countries were given until Jan. 1 of this year to comply with the deal. Argentina, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines and Romania, individually asked for extensions ranging from seven years to five months. The agreement raises automaking standards in those countries to the same level as industrialized nations, something meant to boost the domestic industry and preserve jobs. Violations range from local-parts requirements to allowing some automaking joint ventures to be exempt from certain import duties and taxes. Representatives from the U.S., European Union and Japan say the petitions should be studied on a case-by-case basis.

Mitsubishi guaranteesAustralian arm's future Mitsubishi Motor Corp. says it will spend up to $300 million to develop and produce a new car in Australia by 2005. Managing Director Mike Quinn says the decision ensures Mitsubishi's long-term future in Australia - a future that has hung in the balance as the automaker's operations have struggled with a restructuring plan. The announcement ends published rumors that Mitsubishi would halt Australian manufacturing and means it will build cars in Australia at least until 2011. The exact level of investment has not been finalized, but Mr. Quinn says $300 million is around the price needed to get a new vehicle to the market. The new vehicle is expected to replace the Magna (Diamante)/Verada range, but a decision on whether it will be a sedan or a sport/utility crossover will be made later this year. Against the good news, there still remains one proviso: The go-ahead for the new car depends on the continued restructuring of Australian operations to meet international standards. This will mean layoffs of up to 800 of Mitsubishi's more than 4,000 Australian employees. Some 300 jobs were cut in 1999.?