By Bernie Woodall
(Reuters) - Honda Motor Co <7267.T> last year exported more cars out of the United States than it imported into the country, claiming a first among major Japanese automakers.
More than 30 years after it began building cars in the U.S., the company's North American arm said it shipped 108,705 Honda and Acura brand vehicles out of the U.S. in 2013. The company imported 88,537 vehicles into the U.S. from Japan.
Rick Schostek, Honda North America's executive vice president, told reporters on a conference call the milestone was "one that's been 30 years in the making". The exported vehicles carried a value of $2.658 billion.
The net exporter status is also the product of significant recent investment - Honda has put more than $2.7 billion into expanding its North American auto plants in the past three years. That's part of a strategy designed to boost production in the U.S. and make cars close to the markets where they are sold, said Schostek.
Honda shipped from U.S. plants last year to 50 countries, but most of the exports went to Mexico. Honda did not include shipments to Canada in its U.S. export figures.
Having begun importing the gas-sipping subcompact Civic into the U.S. in 1973, Honda began making cars in the country in 1982. Its Marysville, Ohio, plant, was the first to be owned by a Japanese auto company in the U.S., and the Accord sedan was the first model to roll off its assembly line.
The company now has seven auto assembly plants in North America, including four in the United States. An eighth plant in Celaya in Mexico opens next month, making the Honda Fit subcompact.
From 1987 to 2012, 1 million Honda vehicles were exported after production at U.S. plants. In 1988, it exported an Accord Coupe to Japan for the first time, but the company now does not export any U.S.-made products to its home base in Japan.
The 2013 numbers marked a significant switch from a year earlier as Honda stepped up investment and production. In 2012, Honda imports to the U.S. market were about 136,000, outnumbering exports from its U.S. of about 74,000.
Honda also set a record last year for the number of vehicles it built at U.S. plants, about 1.3 million. Including plants in Canada and Mexico, Honda made 1.78 million vehicles in North America.
Honda's trend toward increasing its exports from U.S. and North American plants will continue in the next few years, Schostek said.
The gap in favor of imports to the U.S. market was substantially wider just five years ago, when 187,000 Honda and Acura vehicles came into the U.S. market while only about 20,000 were exported.
The weaker yen had little impact on imports from Japan in the U.S. market, primarily due to the long-term strategy of localized production, Honda said.
Schostek said boosting U.S. exports by the company is aided by the increasing reliance on U.S.-based research and development of Honda and Acura vehicles sold in North America. A third of the Honda and Acura vehicles sold in the U.S. were designed and developed there, Schostek said.
Honda says that 95 percent of the vehicles it sells in North America are made at local plants.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)