Toyota Quarterly Operating Profit Up 19%

Toyota Motor posted a near-20% rise in quarterly profit on Tuesday on brisk sales in North America and Europe, but kept its full-year forecasts unchanged -- though still on course for an eighth straight yearof record earnings.

Japan's top auto maker is cruising past rivals at home and abroad, riding a reputation for making energy-efficient cars, boosted by the halo effect from its popular Prius hybrid and backed by a steady stream of new or refreshed products such as the RAV4 crossover, Lexus LS and Camry sedans.

Toyota's results confirmed its lead over domestic rivals Honda Motor and Nissan Motor, which announced disappointing quarterly results last week.

Toyota is storming the United States market, the world's biggest, winning sales from General Motors and Ford Motor , both of which are undergoing painful restructuring. GM, Ford and Chrysler all lost market share to Asian brands last year.

Last month, Toyota snatched the No. 2 spot in the U.S. market from Ford with an adjusted 5 increase in sales. The Camry was again the top-selling car in the U.S. last year.

Toyota, already the world's most valuable automaker with a market worth of $230 billion and poised to take over as the top carmaker by volume, kept its forecast for full-year operatin gprofit of 2.2 trillion yen and net profit of 1.55 trillion yen.

October-December operating profit rose 19.2% to 574.79 billion yen ($4.78 billion), helped by a weak yen, and beating an average estimate of 559.2 billion yen in a survey offour brokerages by Reuters Estimates.

Net profit rose 7.3% to 426.77 billion yen, well ahead of market estimates for 375.5 billion yen and beating a year earlier 397.6 billion yen when Toyota benefited from a one-off gain on the valuation of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group.

"The earnings numbers themselves are good and showed the strength of Toyota, especially in the North American market," said Mitsushige Akino, chief fund manager at Ichiyoshi Investment Management.

Koichi Ogawa, chief portfolio manager at Daiwa SB Investments, noted Toyota's better sales volumes that "underlines the strength of Toyota, particularly as both Nissan and Honda showed relatively weak results."

Boosting Prius Production

Japan's second-ranked Honda, also known for its fuel-efficient cars, last week booked a 5.2% percent rise inquarterly operating profit, while Nissan rattled markets with a 17% drop in quarterly profit and a warning on its full-year profit.

Toyota plans to increase production of the Prius, its flagship gasoline-electric car, by 55% this year to 280,000 units, though sales in the U.S. dipped 1% in 2006 due to short supply and a halving in the tax credit rate from October.

With U.S. sales of its smaller models such as the Camry, Yaris and RAV4 in high gear, Toyota is focusing its marketing onthe remodelled Tundra full-sized pickup truck to attack the last bastion of the Detroit Big Three. The Tundra is due to hit showrooms later this month.

Toyota reaffirmed it expected to sell 8.47 million units worldwide in the year ending March, with its U.S. sales forecastup slightly to 2.9 million units from 2.87 million projected three months ago. It downgraded its Japanese sales forecast to 2.29 million units from an earlier 2.36 million.

The figures include sales at truck maker Hino Motors and compact car maker Daihatsu Motor.

Toyota also said it now assumed an average dollar rate of 116 yen and a euro rate of 147 yen for the year to end-March, against rates of 115 yen and 145 yen assumed a quarter ago.

Toyota shares rose 24 percent in October-December, beating the transport sector subindex's 17% gain. Honda sharesgained 18.4%.

Toyota closed up 1.8% at 7,960 on Tuesdayahead of the results.