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With car sales suffering in Japan, dealers zero in on seniors

OSAKA, Japan >> Struggling car dealerships have turned to the elderly for business, and they’re selling more than just cars.

They hope to garner interest with sales of electric wheelchairs and loans that can be canceled if senior drivers surrender their driver’s licenses.

Kobe Mazda Co. formed a partnership with Whill Inc., a Tokyo-based producer of electric wheelchairs. Among Whill’s inventory is the Model C2, which goes for $4,160 and can travel nearly 20 miles on a five-hour charge at a maximum speed of 3.7 mph.

“If we don’t transform ourselves, it will be difficult to survive,” said Satoru Hashimoto, president of Kobe Mazda.

Though an unlikely partnership, Whill’s products are now handled by 31 dealerships of major carmakers, including Mazda Motor Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co.

In Japan last year, domestic shipments of electric wheelchairs were up 20% from five years ago, and sales are expected to increase. “We have been approached by more and more dealers,” said one Whill official.

Meanwhile, Suzuki Motor Corp., the largest manufacturer of electric wheelchairs in Japan, also is focused on marketing its products at affiliated dealers, and Honda currently is developing its own version.

But cars are another story. Car sharing and fewer seniors getting behind the wheel have impacted sales, prompting dealers to offer loans that can be canceled due to illness or if a driver surrenders their license. Carmakers also hope new models equipped with automatic brakes and other safety devices will appeal to older drivers.

“There are many rural areas where cars are the only means of transportation, and many elderly people are still able to drive. We would like to encourage them to switch to the latest models to reduce the number of accidents,” said Yoshiteru Nakamura, sales deputy director of Nara Toyota Corp.

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