TOKYO — Hummer and “fuel-efficient” are rarely mentioned in the same breath.

But anyone in Japan who buys the Hummer H3 model — with its 5.3-liter, 300-horsepower engine — can receive a 250,000 yen ($2,779) subsidy under the country’s recently eased fuel-efficiency standards for imported cars.

The change stems in part from criticism, particularly from Detroit automakers, that recent tax breaks and subsidies intended to spur sales of fuel-efficient cars in Japan unfairly excluded foreign brands.

No American cars were eligible under Japan’s original cash-for-clunkers program, which began last year, while nine out of 10 Japanese-made vehicles received some form of tax break or subsidy.

Japanese officials had said that Japanese-made cars were simply cleaner. American automakers argued, however, that Japan’s fuel-efficiency standards — which focus more on pollution at low speeds and in stop-and-go traffic — put foreign brands at a disadvantage.

General Motors reached a preliminary agreement last year to sell the Hummer brand to the little-known Chinese machinery maker Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery. But the planned sale is still awaiting regulatory approval in China.

Nevertheless, the Japanese standards have been a sore point for American brands. Japanese brands, after all, accounted for almost half of sales under the United States’ own cash-for-clunkers program last year, in which models like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic topped the list.

The incentives, which ended in August, offered consumers discounts of as much as $4,500 to trade in older vehicles for new, more fuel-efficient models.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had raised the discrepancy with the United States government, prompting the Obama administration to warn Japan in December that “changes were necessary” to give American cars “greater opportunity to qualify under Japan’s program.”

Now, Japan says imported cars are welcome. To be eligible, buyers of foreign brands must also scrap a car more than 13 years old.

The Hummer H3 makes the cut, Japan’s trade ministry says, because the government has set easier fuel-efficiency standards for heavier cars.

The H3, which weighs about 4,700 pounds and averages 16 miles per gallon in city traffic, clears the required emissions standards relative to its weight, according to the transport ministry.

The Japanese government has also agreed to accept United States mileage standards — albeit for models with sales of fewer than 2,000 units a year here — making it easier for imported cars to qualify.

“The thinking is that with just one fuel-efficiency level, we’d only subsidize the smallest cars,” said Yasushi Akahoshi, director of the trade ministry’s Americas division.

“But consumer needs are more diverse than that,” he added. “Some people prefer smaller cars, but others need larger cars for work, for example, and they shouldn’t be penalized.”

Other foreign models also newly eligible for the 250,000 yen subsidy are Chrysler’s Voyager minivan, the Cadillac CTS luxury sports sedan and Ford’s Escape XLT Limited S.U.V.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class hybrid and Volkswagen Golf TSI Comfortline are also eligible for additional tax breaks.

Hans Tempel, head of the Japan Automobile Importers Association and chief executive of Mercedes-Benz Japan, applauded the change.

“I think we’ve made a step forward,” he told reporters last month, when the government first announced it would loosen restrictions. “We appreciate that the Japanese government, after listening to our arguments, amended regulations.”

Japan imports far fewer cars than it exports. Foreign automakers sold about 177,000 vehicles in Japan last fiscal year, a small fraction of the 4.7 million cars sold in Japan and the 5.6 million cars the country exported. Moreover, Japan’s domestic auto market is in decline, hurt by a stagnant economy and aging population.

That has meant most American and European carmakers have been bypassing Japan for fast-growing auto markets like China and India. Not a single foreign automaker was present at the Tokyo Motor Show in October last year.

Despite being too wide for many of Japan’s narrow roads, Hummers have a small but loyal following. In the 12 months before March 2009, GM sold 723 Hummers in Japan, an increase of 7.7 percent over the previous year, despite an overall drop in car sales.

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