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Toyota Sees Bigger U.S. Market Share

Trucks, hybrids and vehicles aimed at younger buyers are expected to propel sales, its top U.S. exec says.

September 03, 2003|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Toyota is the biggest import auto brand in the U.S., but the new boss at Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. said Tuesday he's not planning to rest on the corporate laurels.

Instead, look for sprightlier styling -- much of it from Toyota's Calty design studio in Newport Beach -- more hybrid models and continued sales growth, said Yukitoshi Funo, a longtime Toyota Motor Corp. executive who in July took over U.S. operations.

In his first meeting with journalists since being named president and chief executive of Toyota Motor Sales, Funo, 56, said Toyota planners saw signs "that the market is very, very strong," with federal tax cuts taking hold and business confidence improving.

Toyota believes, he said, that total new car and light truck sales in the U.S. this year could top the 16.5-million mark and the company is aiming to grab 1.8 million of those sales, up from a record 1.7 million last year.

Continued sales leadership in California, where Toyota's U.S. operation is headquartered and employs almost 11,000 people, is a key part of the strategy because of its huge car culture, he said.

Toyota continues to expand its U.S. operation by building manufacturing plants. The company has eight in operation, with a groundbreaking in San Antonio next month for a ninth plant to build a full-size truck.

The payoff, Funo said, would be continued sales growth.

Toyota also will push with improved products that serve both baby boomers who helped the company attain its dominant position among importers and the 63 million "Generation Y" consumers who will reach driving age by 2010.

To appeal to both groups, Funo said, Toyota would continue to push forward with new truck and sport utility vehicles beyond the eight models its Toyota and Lexus division sell and would add gasoline-electric or other hybrid power motors to as many models as it can find markets for, including full-size trucks.

And the company will continue using its new Scion brand as a test market for vehicles that might appeal to the youngest buyers, he said.

Toyota expects the market for hybrids to expand "tenfold in the next six years" to about 300,000 a year, Funo said. Toyota dealers now sell one hybrid model, the Prius sedan, and have seen a recent increase in the number of mainstream consumers looking at the hybrid.

The larger and more powerful 2004 Prius hits dealer showrooms next month, and Funo said the company was considering increasing annual worldwide production to 70,000 -- up from 50,000 -- because of anticipated U.S. and Japanese demand.

He said Toyota believed it could sell at least 35,000 Prius models in the U.S. next year.

Funo declined to speculate on Toyota's growth in the U.S. -- some analysts have suggested the company could overtake Chrysler soon to become the nation's third-largest auto company. But he said U.S. sales in August could hit a record for the company.

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