(Writes through with company, analyst comments, details)
By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia auto correspondent
TOKYO, Jan 31 (Reuters) -Motor Co. , Japan's third-biggest auto maker, posted a better-than-expected 24 percent jump in quarterly operating profit on Tuesday, helped by soaring revenues and a weaker yen, and jacked up its full-year forecasts to account for currency and other one-off windfalls.
Most of Japan's top auto makers are expected to report strong profit gains as they ride a softer yen and expand their sales worldwide, most notably in North America at the expense ofCorp. and Motor Co. .
GM, the world's top-selling auto maker, last week reported a $4.8 billion fourth-quarter net loss as costs of layoffs and plant closures soared., also going through a sweeping restructuring, fared better with a 19 percent rise in earnings.
Analysts expect, also the world's top motorcycle maker, to speed ahead in the United States with new products such as the CR-V and Acura MDX in the growing crossover segment -- for cars that look like sports utility vehicles but are built on a more economical car platform -- as well as the popular Civic sedan that was remodelled late last year.
For the year to the end of March, Honda lifted its operating profit forecast by 27 percent to a record 860 billion yen ($7.31 billion) to include a 128 billion yen gain related to the return of the proxy portion of its pension funds to the government.
The new figure would represent a 36 percent improvement on last year and exceeds the market's consensus forecast of 696 billion yen, even without the pension-related add-on.
It boosted its net profit forecast to 605 billion yen from 490 billion yen.
While investors could take a cue from the rosier projections, one analyst said the revised amount was based solely on the pension gains and Honda's new assumptions for more favourable exchange rates rather than on a better sales performance.
In fact, Honda now expects to sell fewer motorcycles and power products during the business year than it reckoned three months ago. It kept its forecast for total car sales unchanged.
"Despite how it may look at first glance, it's not necessarily a hugely upbeat result," said CSFB auto analyst Koji Endo, adding that Honda's fundamentals remained firm.
BETTER DAYS FOR DOMESTIC MARKET
Opening the sector's earnings season, Honda booked an operating profit of 194.99 billion yen ($1.66 billion) for the October-December third quarter, beating a consensus estimate of 187 billion yen in a survey by Reuters Estimates.
Sales volumes in North America and Europe were flat but revenues grew thanks to a weaker yen and a drop in spending on profit-eroding sales incentives in the United States.
The domestic Japanese market remains a weak spot, but Honda -- and analysts -- said sales could turn up after March, when the auto maker brings together its three sales channels to make all its cars available at each showroom.
"We're expecting a year-over-year rise during the final quarter," Honda Executive Vice President Satoshi Aoki told a news conference, referring to domestic sales.
Analysts have said Honda's Chinese operations could also improve as pressure eases on pricing competition for the industry.
Third-quarter net profit fell to 133.15 billion yen, down 12 percent from a year earlier, when Honda had booked one-off valuation gains. Revenues grew 16 percent to 2.472 trillion yen.
Shares in Honda, valued at more than $52 billion, rose 4.8 percent in October-December, underperforming an 18.7 percent gain by the Nikkei average and the transport sector's 12.3 percent rise.
Honda closed up 1.37 percent at 6,660 yen on Tuesday ahead of the results.
Providing more fodder for a rise, Honda said it planned to cancel 11 million of its treasury stock, or 1.18 percent of its outstanding shares, on Feb. 7. In addition, it plans to buy back up to 5.8 million of its own shares by April 14.
Quarterly results are due from Japan's second-ranked auto makerMotor Co. Ltd. on Thursday and from top-ranked Motor Corp. on Feb. 7. ($1=117.67 Yen)