Toyota's US auto sales shoot up

Toyota Motor Corp sees US new light vehicle sales rising as much as 13 per cent next year, buoyed by several factors including a slight rise in sales of pickup trucks, a top Toyota US executive said.

Bob Carter, sales chief for the Toyota brand in the United States, said the company expects 2011 industry sales at between 12.5 million and 12.9 million, up from this year's expected rate of 11.4 million to 11.5 million.

However, Carter told the Reuters Global Autos Summit in Los Angeles on Monday that low consumer confidence continues to be a drag.

"Consumer confidence is still what's dragging down the market," said Carter, who said buyers are more cautious about taking on debt.

US sales are slowly recovering from the low of 10.4 million new cars and trucks sold in 2009, after a 10-year stretch when annual sales averaged 16.4 million vehicles.

For Toyota in the US market, things are looking up after a spate of safety recalls that began a year ago and had their biggest erosion for sales in March to May, Carter said. Autodata figures show that through October, Toyota's US sales are nearly flat while the US market is up nearly 11 per cent.

Of the nearly 14 million recalls of Toyota vehicles worldwide in the past 12 months, about 11 million were in the United States, the automaker's top market.

Carter said that before the recall -- he called it a "media firestorm" -- about 55 per cent of Toyota new-vehicle buyers were new or returning to the brand. That figure dropped to "the low 40s" per cent in a 90-day period from March to May, Carter said.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda testified before a US congressional committee on its safety recalls in late February.

"This has been the most challenging year that Toyota has faced," Carter said. "Overall, we are confident our challenges are behind us."

Carter said new customers buying Toyotas accounted for 57 per cent to 58 per cent of new vehicle sales, near the pre-recall average near 55 per cent.

"Our brand is recovering nicely," Carter said.

A strong Japanese yen may cause the automaker to have moderate price increases for vehicles imported to the US market, Carter said.

Even with a strong yen, Toyota will continue to set prices primarily based on consumer demand, he said.

In October, trucks made up more than 52 per cent of the overall new vehicle sales. Carter said he expects the market to return and stabilize at its normal rate of about half cars, half trucks.

Carter said consumer sales incentives are seen as a short-term fix and that Toyota used them as a way to overcome a falling public perception. He has said that incentives will rise for the last two months of the year in part for cyclical factors and not because of the recalls.

"Most if not all of our incentives are in (interest rate) reductions or leasing," Carter said.

Carter said upfront cash rebates may help sales but they hurt residual values.

In his forecast for 2011 sales, Carter sees an advantage for Toyota in the return of balance from fleet sales to retail sales. Toyota leads in US retail sales and its ratio of fleet sales to its total sales is near 9 per cent