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TOKYO (Reuters) - At first it was single women. Then retiring baby-boomers. Now, Honda has sniffed out another growing demographic of potential car buyers in Japan: the dog-lover.
Japan's No.2 automaker is looking to win points with canine fans using a website that offers information on dog-friendly cafes and hotels, dimensions for its cars' cargo space for stashing cages, a rating system that ranks seat fabric for ease of removing dog hair, and much more.
Visitors to the Japanese-language site, called "Honda Dog" (www.honda.co.jp/dog/), can also find out about events where they can test-drive Honda cars with their pups, or view a race in a section reserved for dog-accompanied guests.
"There's definitely a need there that wasn't being met," said Teruhiro Murai, an Internet marketer at Honda who came up with the idea seven years ago to fulfill his own needs as the owner of a golden retriever and miniature dachshund.
Honda may be on to something.
Thanks to a recent pet boom and a declining birthrate, Japanese now have more dogs and cats than they do children under 15. Detecting a trend, Honda came up with the W.O.W. concept car at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show designed especially for dogs: detachable, easy-to-clean seats, wooden floors and a netted, built-in pup-crate in the dashboard.
The site, which can also be reached by clicking on the dog on Honda's Japan-based home page (www.honda.co.jp), gets 1.5 million page views a month. Internal surveys show that about 100 people decide to buy a Honda after visiting the site, Murai said.
"It helps to show people exactly how our cars can be canine-friendly," said Tokio Isono, a fellow dog-lover and a chief engineer of Honda's cars.
The new Freed minivan, launched in Japan on Thursday, is a perfect example, he said.
The vehicle has the lowest floor yet among Honda's minivans, at just 39 cm (15.35 inches) from the ground to the rear section, while the cargo space is just 48 cm off the ground.
"It's low enough even for my dog, May," Isono said, commanding his short-legged, three-year-old corgi to jump in during a demonstration for reporters.
Dog-conscious car shopping also has legs outside Japan.
Independent site dogcars.com, with readers clicking in from the United States to Russia and beyond, provides reviews and "paw" ratings for vehicles and pet gear such as backseat restraints and de-shedding combs.
Toyota Motor has also pricked up its ears, creating a rival site to Honda Dog last year in Japan. (toyota.jp/corolla/dog/)
Still, the Japanese juggernaut may have some way to go to catch up with Honda's dog-friendliness: dogcars.com's first-ever "DogCar of the Year" award went to the 2007 Honda Element SUV for its easy-to-clean interior and anti-noseprint windows.
"Thanks, Honda," raves an Element owner in a user comment. "You were trying to fill a surfer dude niche and you accidentally made the most rockin' dog-friendly vehicle ever!"