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Toyota expecting US sales to grow in 2008

Toyota expects its vehicle sales in the United States to grow by about 3 percent in 2008 on the strength of more than a dozen new or updated vehicles, a company executive said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Toyota Motor Corp. expects its vehicle sales in the United States to grow by about 3 percent in 2008 on the strength of more than a dozen new or updated vehicles, a top company executive said Wednesday.

Jim Lentz, president of Toyota's U.S. sales arm, told reporters that U.S. sales were expected to be about 2.61 million units in 2007. That's 2.8 percent higher than Toyota's 2.54 million units sold in 2006. He said he expected similar gains in 2008.

"We haven't finalized our numbers for 2008 yet, but it feels more like in a range of this year's increase as opposed to the increases that we've seen from say 2004 to 2006, where we were up almost 10 percent a year," Lentz said.

Lentz predicted that the auto industry's total U.S. sales would fall from 16.5 million in 2006 to 16.1 million in 2007 and remain flat at that level in 2008.

Toyota was rapidly gaining sales in that period as it entered new segments, such as large pickups. But with offerings in every segment now, the automaker's growth had been expected to slow.

Lentz said Toyota will be releasing new versions of the Toyota Corolla and Matrix compact vehicles, the Lexus LX 570 sport utility vehicle and the Lexus IS F sports sedan, along with about a dozen other vehicles to be announced soon.

"Overall, we're looking for a relatively challenging industry, but I think we have a broad product lineup that will address wherever direction the industry takes us," Lentz said.

Toyota expects to end 2007 with sales of about 250,000 hybrids in the U.S., accounting for about 11 percent of the company's sales. Lentz said sales of the Prius hybrid grew 70 percent through the end of November.

A sales rate of 2.6 million vehicles still puts Toyota well behind General Motors Corp., the No. 1 automaker by U.S. sales. GM sold 3.5 million vehicles in the U.S. in the first 11 months of this year. But the boost could help Toyota in its race to become the largest automaker by worldwide sales, a title now held by GM.

Lentz downplayed the significance of the vaulted position.

"It's not a goal. You won't see banners and posters in our office saying we want to be No. 1 because it's really not important to the customer that we're No. 1," he said.

Toyota also is looking to overtake Ford Motor Co. as the No. 2 automaker by U.S. sales. Toyota sold nearly 49,000 more vehicles than Ford in the first 11 months of this year.

Lentz said he expects most segments to remain fairly flat with some growth in subcompacts and the small to midsize sport utility segment.

"I think the sense is the first half of the year is going to be probably below that number and the second half of the year we see some recovery that will probably be above that number," he said, referring to the company's projections of U.S. sales of about 16.1 million vehicles in 2008.

Lentz said earlier in the year, company officials thought U.S. consumers might buy 16.7 million vehicles in 2007. But a combination of rising fuel costs, fallout from the shaky housing market, challenges over subprime mortgages and the move by domestic automakers to reduce their fleet sales contributed to a reduction in overall sales, he said. Many auto industry analysts now are predicting U.S. sales of just more than 16 million for 2007, down from 16.5 million in 2006.

Problems with the subprime loan market and housing woes have affected Toyota's sales in Florida, California, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Lentz said 25 percent of the company's sales are in Florida and California.