published Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Toyota sold 4.97 million vehicles in first half

TOKYO (AP) - Toyota sold 4.97 million vehicles globally in the first six months of this year, a strong result that could see the Japanese automaker regain its crown as the world's top automaker from General Motors Co.

The number, released Wednesday, underlines Toyota Motor Corp.'s powerful rebound from a period of dismal sales, and the resilience of its brand as it gains traction in new markets such as China and Southeast Asia while clawing back lost market share in the U.S.

Toyota's production was hit by the quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan last year and then by flooding in Thailand, which is an important production base for the automaker. Before those disasters, its sales were dented by massive U.S. recalls, totaling more than 14 million vehicles since the quality control problems emerged three years ago.

GM, which was No. 1 in world auto sales last year, plans to release first-half global sales Aug. 2. Its vehicle sales will total 4.56 million, even if it merely matches the first-quarter pace, and will likely approach 4.7 million vehicles, given its strong performance in China and the U.S., its two largest markets.

GM had held the global sales crown for more than seven decades before losing it to Toyota in 2008 as GM's sales tanked while it headed toward financial ruin. In 2009, GM filed for bankruptcy protection, needing a U.S. government bailout to survive.

Volkswagen AG earlier this month said it sold 4.45 million vehicles in the first half. It came in second after GM in global vehicle sales last year.

GM had already trailed Toyota for the first quarter of this year at 2.28 million cars and trucks across the globe, while Toyota sold 2.49 million vehicles. Toyota has forecast that it will sell 9.58 million vehicles in 2012, up 21 percent from last year.

Chizuko Satsukawa, auto analyst for Standard & Poor's in Tokyo, said Toyota faces intense competition not only from GM and Volkswagen but from other automakers, including Hyundai of South Korea.

Toyota is counting on its next surge of expansion in Southeast Asia, following other high-growth markets such as China, India and Brazil, she said.

"Toyota's rebound is impressive," said Satsukawa. "But what's even more important than the numbers is profitability."

Satsukawa said Toyota was at a disadvantage because of a strong yen, compared to European and South Korean makers that have the perk of a weak currency that raises earnings from exported vehicles. That makes gaining sales numbers critical for Toyota, she said.

Doing well in North America was also critical because that rich market is where many automakers, including Toyota, can hope to rake in hefty profits.

After the recall fiasco, Toyota President Akio Toyoda acknowledged that the automaker needed to go back to its roots and strengthen quality rather than pursuing rapid growth at any cost.

But in recent months, he has changed his tone slightly, promising growth for Toyota, although he has stressed it will do so with good products.

Toyota spokesman Joichi Tachikawa played down Wednesday's figures.

"We can only keep trying to make good products that appeal to our customers," he said.

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