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Toyota to Continue to Grow, Top U.S. Executive Promises

Hybrid-electric vehicles will drive Toyota’s success in the U.S. in the coming years.

PHOENIX – Despite industry soothsayers’ doomsday predictions, Toyota Motor Corp. is not a victim of its own success and sales will continue to grow in North America.

“We are absolutely confident of continuing our growth, but (it) won’t be as linear in the past because there’s no real new large segments for us to enter at this point in time,” Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. group vice president and general manager, tells Ward’s at a media event.

Carter says Toyota still is predicting a robust U.S. new-vehicle market in the ensuing years, with a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 18 million-20 million units expected early next decade.

“Every rising tide raises all ships,” Carter says of the industry.

Toyota brand sales climbed 6.7% in the year’s first four months to 716,826 units, compared with year-ago’s 671,759, Ward’s data shows. Total company sales, including the Lexus luxury division, also saw a 6.7% gain in the period, to 816,312 units from prior-year’s 764,815.

Toyota has said it wants to sell 2.68 million units in the U.S. this year, up from 2.54 million in 2006.

The auto maker’s U.S. market share through April stood at 15.7%, a gain from year-ago’s 14.3%, surpassing Chrysler Group’s 14.0% and encroaching on Ford Motor Co.’s 16.3%.

One area Toyota will continue to improve its sales performance, in the U.S. as well as globally, is the hybrid-electric vehicle market.

Carter says the auto maker “has only scratched the surface” when it comes to ramping up the number of HEVs it plans to offer.

“We’re proud to have three Toyota and three Lexus hybrids, but there’s a lot more models out there that we can apply hybrid technology to,” he says.

For 2007, Toyota forecasts sales of U.S. hybrids will reach 250,000 units, with the Prius making up the vast majority.

Although Prius sales have skyrocketed, up 73.7% to 52,738 units through April, Carter says Toyota still is holding to the 175,000 deliveries targeted for the year, which Ward’s first reported in September.

“We’re fortunate right now that the car is turning at a higher rate, but we’re not forecasting anything over that. This is only May,” Carter says.

The Prius’ success this year has to do with the HEV being embraced not only by technologically and environmentally minded consumers but also by mainstream car buyers.

“When we first started selling (the Prius in 2000 and until recently), we were still tapping a very engaged and very much technology-driven early adopter,” Carter says.

“We’re past that. We’re well into the bell curve in the market. The customer buying Prius today is really the Camry and Corolla customer – the general market customer.”

But the newfound attraction to the car for mainstream buyers has not repelled those who originally embraced it.

“Actually, it’s quite contrary,” Carter says. “The early adopters are attracted to (the Prius) through its efficiency and its environmental friendliness.

“I don’t like to paint customers with a broad brush, but, overall, our Prius customers are very enthusiastic. They’d love to see hybrid applications across the board, because they see a reduced impact on environmental resources.”

As for other alternative powertrain technologies, Carter says while Toyota is “fully committed” to hybrids, “the company is so strong in (research and development), there is nothing that’s off the table.”

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