Toyota on Track to Regain Sales Crown

Maker sells nearly 5 million vehicles in first half of 2012.

by on Jul.25, 2012

Though a late arrival for 2012, the next-gen Avalon could add momentum to Toyota's sales drive.

Crushed by last year’s devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Toyota Motor Co. lost the global automotive sales crown to not only General Motors but was also passed by German rival Volkswagen AG.  But if the Japanese maker’s pace during the first half of 2012 is any indication it may very well be back as king-of-the-hill this year.

Toyota sold 4.97 million vehicles worldwide between January 1 and June 30th, a commanding 300,000-unit lead over GM, according to newly released numbers.  Barring another setback for Toyota, industry analysts suggest it will be difficult for the U.S. rival – or VW, for that matter – to catch up by year-end.

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Toyota’s rebound reflects a number of factors including, most notably, its recovery from last year’s Japanese natural disaster which forced most of that country’s makers to shutter key plants for a month or more due to component shortages and then only slowly restart production in Japan and at their overseas plants.

While some customers migrated to competing brands rather than wait, it appears many other loyalists hung tight and are only now returning to showrooms.  That was considered a major factor behind last month’s 68% surge in Toyota’s U.S. sales.

Also notable has been Toyota’s expanding presence in emerging markets such as China, now the world’s largest automotive market.

And the Japanese maker is in the midst of one of its most aggressive product roll-outs ever, with a variety of new models ranging from the 2012 Camry update to the Prius C compact hybrid. And, significantly, Toyota President Akio Toyoda has put  premium on more expressive models, such as the upcoming Avalon, which are designed to conquest customers rather than just retain brand loyalists.

General Motors, however, has the same idea in mind and has been regaining momentum it lost during the run-up to its 2009 bankruptcy.  The maker had been the world’s best-selling automotive manufacturer for three-quarters of a century but lost that lead three years earlier before recovering the crown in 2011.

Like Toyota, GM is counting on a wave of new products to build sales, such as the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac’s new ATS and XTS models.  It is preparing a replacement for the critical Chevy Silverado pickup, though that won’t make or break it this year.

GM, meanwhile, is a much stronger player in China where it is the number one manufacturer and setting records on a regular basis.  But the Chinese market has faced an unexpected slowdown this year and that could make the difference in terms of global sales.

The U.S. maker has also been badly dinged by its struggling European operations which, after a dozen years of red ink could post another multi-billion-dollar loss for 2012.

Not everything is going well for Toyota, however.  Last year’s production problems came on the heels of the worst quality and safety crisis in the company’s history and though quality has clearly risen sharply in recent months there are still some problems, including recent recalls notably involving the popular Lexus RX crossover line for problems related to the huge 2009-2010 unintended acceleration issue.

Toyota received a generally clean bill of health from a pair of studies, one handled by space agency NASA, which could not find defects related to the maker’s engine controller technology. But the reports left open the possibility of issues that could not be traced and that has Senator Chuck Grassley demanding answers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency.

New concerns about Toyota safety could short-circuit the maker’s strong sales resurgence, industry analysts warn.

The wild card in the sales race is Volkswagen, which earlier this month reported sales of 4.5 million vehicles for the first half of 2012.  That seems likely to leave the German giant lagging towards a third-place finish – for now.  But while GM and Toyota officials routinely downplay their desire of reaching – or the benefits of achieving – number one status, VW CEO Martin Winterkorn has publicly made that his number one goal.  However, the target date he has set is still a half-decade away.

While Toyota seems well positioned for the second half of 2012, with the global economy shaky and a variety of other issues roiling through the auto industry it is anyone’s bet who will wind up at the top of the charts at the end of the year.

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