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Toyota luring buyers back with incentives

/ Source: staff and news service reports

For consumers, cash seems to be paving over worries about unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles as deep incentives have helped to fill its showrooms during the past few weeks.

A high-ranking Toyota executive said the auto company's North American sales spiked around 50 percent the first eight days of March. Don Esmond, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales, said in an interview Tuesday that the early numbers surpassed the company's expectations.

Esmond, who was speaking at a conference for Toyota suppliers, didn't give detailed figures.

"Now that the congressional hearings are behind us, it's time to move on," Esmond said. "We said we're sorry. I think we've taken responsibility in terms of the recalls."

Toyota's president, Akio Toyoda, went to Capitol Hill last month to apologize for how the automaker dealt with safety issues that led to recalls of millions of popular Toyota vehicles.

Since the fall, Toyota has recalled some 8.5 million vehicles worldwide — more than 6 million in the United States — because of braking flaws and acceleration problems, linked to faulty pedals and floor mats. But critics have said that electronics may be behind incidents that have caused about 52 deaths.

On Monday, police had to help slow down a runaway Toyota Prius on a California freeway. The driver said the accelerator had become stuck and the car reached 94 mph before a trooper, shouting instructions from a megaphone, helped him slow down and shut off the engine.

A second incident involving a Toyota Prius accelerating unintentionally occurred Tuesday in Harrison, N.Y., according to NBC's WNBC. Police were investigating the cause of the crash, but Harrison police Capt. Anthony Marraccini said a floor mat issue at the heart of many of the recalls did not appear to be a factor.

Last week, Toyota, which is usually stingy with incentives, announced new deals designed to bring shoppers back into its showrooms, amid all the negative publicity over the recalls.

Existing Toyota owners who buy another vehicle from the company will receive two years of free maintenance, Toyota said. The automaker also is offering zero-percent financing and low-priced leases to customers who buy or lease several of the recalled vehicles, including Corollas, Camrys and Avalons.

Esmond also said there is pent-up demand from buyers who didn't shop for cars during last year's economic downturn. U.S. sales plummeted to their lowest level in nearly 30 years in 2009.

Dealers say the incentives are helping, especially after Toyota's sales fell 9 percent in February, the first full month after it stopped sales of some models because of safety issues. Overall industry sales rose 13 percent over February 2009, which was an especially weak month in the U.S.

Earl Stewart, who owns a dealership in North Palm Beach, Fla., said the Camry sedan and hybrid Prius are selling well despite being the subject of recalls.

"These are the best incentives we've seen in a long time," he said. "We are basically telling customers, Toyota sales will be coming back and they're going to pull these incentives. So people see a sense of urgency."

Esmond said many loyal Toyota buyers seem to be sticking with the brand. He defended the increase in incentives, which has forced General Motors Corp., Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and others to match Toyota's deals.

"Our incentive program is probably stepped up but it still doesn't approach what our competitors are spending in the incentive market," he said. Toyota's spending of $1,833 per vehicle in February was below the industry average of $2,588, according to auto information site

The AP contributed to this report.