Toyota Motor Corp. is mindful that its gains at the expense of U.S. automakers could have political ramifications in the new Democratic-controlled Congress, but the company's top North American executive says that won't change its business plan.
In an hourlong interview Tuesday with reporters in Detroit, Jim Press, Toyota's North American president, said the Japanese automaker always is looking at the consequences of the disparity between its performance and its U.S.-based competitors.
"The way the issue is played out doesn't affect the business," Press said. "The business is you take care of customers. You make investments. Our philanthropy is up. We're doing more for the community," he said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and lawmakers from other manufacturing states have charged that the Japanese government has kept the yen artificially low, which makes exports cheaper in the United States and elsewhere.
But Press said criticisms that Toyota benefits from currency manipulation and also from Japan's taxpayer-financed health care system are unfair.
There are so many forces governing currency that the values would be difficult to manipulate, he said. Among the factors, he said is that the U.S. still is attractive to investors. Toyota isn't encroaching on the Detroit Three's territory, it's merely satisfying demand for its products, which recently have been a better match for consumer tastes, Press said.
Last year, Toyota's sales rose 12.9 percent to more than 2.5 million vehicles, giving it more than 15 percent of the U.S. market. The company's best sales year helped it supplant DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group as the No. 3 seller of vehicles in the U.S.
Toyota's gains came at the expense of other manufacturers, namely General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler, because the overall U.S. auto market was down 2.6 percent compared with 2005.
He also conceded that last year, nearly half of the cars Toyota sold in North America were produced overseas. Press attributed the increased overseas production to the market shifting toward gas-electric hybrids and more fuel-efficient cars, which he said Toyota builds largely outside of North America.
The automaker has undergone an image campaign to emphasize its U.S. manufacturing plants, and Toyota is in the process of adding the capacity to build 600,000 more units in North America, or a total of 2.15 million vehicles, by 2010, Press said. He added that the company would like two-thirds of its vehicles sold in North America to be made there by 2010, but that will depend on sales.
"People want to invest in America," Press said. "Money flows here. These are the kind of dynamics that affect currency."
On health care, he said Toyota provides health insurance to its U.S. workers in a way that it maintains benefits and maintains fiscal responsibility.
"We build cars here," he said. "People in Kentucky have good health care."
He said Michigan remains the center of automotive expertise, and Toyota plans to capture that by doubling its employment in the Ann Arbor area to around 1,000 with a new technical center that is now under construction south of the city.
While he said the company has been investing in Michigan for years, it never intended to build a new engine plant in the state, despite rumors to the contrary.
Also, Press said that incentives placed on the new Tundra full-sized pickup truck were planned responses to those offered by competitors, not a response to slow sales.
Competitors, he said, have incentives of up to $7,000 on 75 percent of their pickups, and customers have come into Toyota dealerships asking what its incentives are.
Incentives on the Tundra averaged $1,647 per vehicle in February, according to data compiled by Edmunds.com, a research site for car buyers.
And he described Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally's December meeting with Toyota CEO Fujio Cho as "neighbors talking across the fence."
Press said the two talked about shared technology.
"There's really no active project or investigation," he said.