Toyota to Cement Top Spot in 2008, Widens Gap With GM

Toyota Motor will charge further into emerging car markets to achieve another year of record sales in 2008, likely cementing its title as the world's biggest automaker ahead of General Motors .

David Zalubowski

Toyota, already the world's most profitable and valuable carmaker, said on Tuesday it expects to sell 9.85 million vehicles in 2008, up from an estimated 9.36 million this year -- a result that is likely to nudge it past GM's sales forecast of 9.2 million for 2007.

With a product line-up including the Camry and Prius hybrid cars, Toyota has attracted more customers in emerging and mature markets alike, all the while increasing profits through cost cuts and economies of scale.

Stripping out GM's minority-held Chinese joint venture, the Toyota group, which includes units Daihatsu Motor and Hino Motors, overtook the U.S. giant in global vehicle sales last year.

Toyota, valued at around $190 billion, is likely to widen its sales gap with GM next year as the restructuring U.S. automaker scales back production in North America and prepares to sell off its medium-duty truck business to Navistar International.

As with most other carmakers, Toyota's growth has been especially brisk in the emerging car markets of China and Russia, where it expects combined sales of roughly 900,000 vehicles next year, a rise of nearly 40 percent.

"The Chinese market has undergone a significant change during the year," President Katsuaki Watanabe told a year-end news conference.

"At the beginning of the year, we wondered if the total auto market would reach 8 million, and by mid-year we were looking at 8.5 million. Now it's possible the market will exceed 9 million," he said. "We need to figure out how to meet demand."

Toyota has a target of selling 1 million cars a year in China soon after 2010, and Executive Vice President Tokuichi Uranishi said it would need several new factories to ramp up supply.

Toyota has been expanding its factories and building new ones at breakneck speed around the world, including its first plant in Russia that opened last week. Executives said Russia would drive expansion in Europe, where Toyota aims to increase sales by 2 percent to 1.27 million vehicles next year.

Toyota expects to build 9.95 million vehicles globally next year, a rise of 5 percent.

Cautious On US, Slow In India

On the most important U.S. market, Watanabe sounded a cautious tone, predicting only slight growth for Toyota in a flat overall market littered with risks.

"We expect the economy to slow down a bit, and there are risks from the subprime loan crisis and crude oil prices," he said.

Toyota, which ranks second in the U.S. market now ahead of Ford Motor and Chrysler, expects its U.S. sales to grow 1 percent to 2.64 million vehicles in 2008.

Elsewhere, Toyota has yet to make headway in the promising markets of India and Brazil without a product in the dominant segment of cheap, no-frills cars.

Toyota has promised an ultra-low-cost family car to crack such lower-income markets, as France's Renault has done with the Logan, but it has yet to give a timeline for its introduction.

"I feel that we're coming close to making a decision on when and where to launch the vehicle, but we need a little more time to make improvements, including in the cost and design areas," Watanabe said. The prototype that he tested a month ago, he said, was at "a pretty good level".

At the other end of the spectrum, Toyota is aiming to spread the success of its luxury Lexus brand in North America to Europe and Japan to offset the pressure on margins from cheaper, smaller, environmentally friendly cars.

Under its "Global Vision 2020" plan, Toyota wants to offer the fuel-saving hybrid powertrain on all of its vehicle series. To that end, it said it had started considering mass production of lithium-ion batteries with Matsushita Electric Industrial, its partner in automobile-use batteries.

Toyota currently uses nickel hydride batteries on its Prius and other hybrid cars.

Toyota's shares have shed 24 percent so far this year, underperforming the Tokyo market partly on worries about car demand in the United States, its biggest market.

Analysts say that Toyota's prospects are solid in the United States, and that it is steadily reducing its dependence on North America by expanding in the Middle East and other markets.

Earlier this year, Toyota forecast group-wide sales of 10.4 million vehicles in 2009, possibly becoming the first automaker to reach the 10 million-unit annual sales milestone.