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Auto Outlook: Toyota to regain global sales crown from General Motors

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer   |   Jan. 20, 2013 at 5:30 AM
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When Toyota Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda predicted a comeback for the Japanese automaker last spring, no one really doubted him.

But Toyota had a long way to go to restore confidence after years of damaging publicity from recalls, the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and floods that halted production of vehicles and auto parts in Thailand.

Toyota's net income fell 31 percent in fiscal 2011 -- which ran from March to March -- to $3.5 billion and the former No. 1 car maker faced hundreds of damaging lawsuits from sudden acceleration cases.

"In recent years, we have suffered periods of hardship. This year, I am determined to show tangible results of all our internal efforts in order to reward our stakeholders who supported us during these difficult times," Toyoda said in Japan in early May.

Fast forward to January, and the Japanese car company is poised to dethrone General Motors as the global sales leader after just one year. Toyota says it sold 9.7 million vehicles in 2012, up 22 percent from 2011.

The Prius became the best-selling car in sunny California with 60,699 sold -- up 78 percent -- of the record 236,000 of the gas-electric hybrids sold throughout the United States, registration data from Experian Automotive indicated.

GM, which first lost the sales title to Toyota in 2008 after 77 years on top, sold 9.29 million vehicles last year.

Germany's Volkswagen sold a record 9.07 million vehicles worldwide, up 11.2 percent. The 580,200 VWs sold in the United States represented the best showing since 1973. GM sold 3.02 million cars and trucks in North America, up 3.2 percent.

Still, Toyota is not celebrating as it looks over its shoulder.

The Los Angeles Times said it is in confidential negotiations to quietly settle the most potentially damaging of the more than 300 unintended-acceleration lawsuits in federal and state courts.

Toyota blamed sticky gas pedals and improperly installed floor mats for the runaway cars, and several government investigations found no defects in vehicle electronics.

Toyota rolled out the compact Furia, a rakish design concept of a next-generation Corolla, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that would upend its devotion to conservative styling.

"We want to build the best cars," said Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor sales USA. "We want to provide customers the best experience."


Fiat ready to buy more of Chrysler

Italy's Fiat, which purchased a controlling share of Chrysler to bring the Detroit automaker out of bankruptcy in 2009, wants it all.

"Eventually, we'll end up having a merged company," Fiat-Chrysler Group head Sergio Marchione told The Detroit News at the North American International Auto Show in the Motor City.

Fiat owns 58.5 percent of Chrysler and under terms of the buyout deal has options to buy 3.3 percent more of the company every six months from VEBA, the voluntary employees' beneficiary association that operates the United Auto Workers hourly retiree healthcare trust.

"They have no mandate to be a shareholder of a car company," Marchionne said. "They have to covert [their shares] into cash sooner or later."

Fiat doesn't have much choice. Chrysler is hot, accounting for 60 percent of worldwide Fiat-Chrysler sales of 4.1 million last year. European car sales are not forecast to rebound anytime soon.

Marchionne also said Chrysler plans to build and sell Jeeps in China because of demand for the vehicle there and eventually do the same in Russia. But he restated the Jeep Wrangler, Grand Cherokee and Patriot, vehicles he calls the pillars of the brand, will be made in the United States.

The Detroit Free Press reported Chrysler is close to an agreement with Guangzhou Automobile Group on Jeep production in China. The Guangzhou plant already assembles the Fiat Viagio.

Chrysler plans to build a subcompact Jeep sport utility vehicle at a Fiat plant in Italy for export to North America and other markets. The new small Jeep will be built on the Fiat Punto platform.

"That car that is being built in Italy is a car that doesn't exist in the current portfolio for Jeep," Marchionne said.


Honda, VW show concept SUVs

2014 could be the year of the small crossover SUV.

At the Detroit auto show, Honda took the covers off a subcompact SUV based on the Honda Fit platform.

The Urban SUV Concept will be built along with the Fit at an $800 million plant under construction in Mexico and go on sale in the United States in late 2014.

"We think this vehicle is right on the money," American Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel said.

Volkwagen unveiled its midsize plug-in, diesel-electric hybrid CrossBlue SUV concept. The four-wheel-drive SUV seats six and gets 35 mpg in combined city-highway driving, or the equivalent of 89 miles per gallon in electric-only mode. It would be capable of traveling 14 miles on batteries alone.

If it gets a green light for production for 2014 Volkswagen says the CrossBlue would be made in North America. VW builds its midsize Passat sedan in Chattanooga, Tenn., and could expand production capacity.


The Corvette Stingray is back -- and 'bad'

For car lovers of a certain age the Corvette Stingray name can only bring a smile.

The fire-alarm red seventh-generation model of the low-production sports car -- originally introduced as a race car in 1959 -- is a star at the 2013 North American International Auto Show and a gilded halo of the Chevrolet brand.

"Like the '63 Sting Ray, the best Corvettes embodied performance leadership, delivering cutting-edge technologies, breathtaking design and awe-inspiring driving experiences," GM President for North America Mark Reuss told a private gathering of 1,000 fans, media and VIPs at the Russell Industrial Center on Detroit's east side before the auto show opened, The New York Times reported.

The two-seater does not have the split rear window of the iconic 1963 Sting Ray or the signature round taillights. But the all-new, C7 (for seventh-generation) Stingray remains true to its heritage with a direct-injection, 6.2-liter, 450 hp, small block pushrod V-8 engine and rear-wheel drive. Its aluminum unibody frame is 57 percent stiffer and nearly 100 pounds lighter than the previous Corvette and its fiberglass, carbon-fiber, composite body is 37 pounds lighter.

The engine can operate on four cylinders while cruising at highway speed to save fuel, making it the most fuel-efficient Corvette in history.

The Vette comes with either a six-speed automatic or a 7-speed manual transmission and can go 0-60 mph in less than 4 seconds.

"For 60 years, the Corvette has represented the state of the art in performance cars," Reuss said. "To put it simply, this car is the reason I work at General Motors."

Fewer than 12,000 Corvettes were made in 2012.


American vehicles win honors

The U.S.-made Cadillac ATS and the Ram 1500 were chosen the North American Car and North American Truck of the year at the North American International Auto Show.

The small Caddie sports sedan offers rear or all-wheel-drive powered by either four-cylinder or six-cylinder engines. The Honda Accord was second in the balloting and the Ford Fusion third.

The Ram 1500 beat Mazda's CX-5 crossover SUV and the Ford C-Max for the truck/utility vehicle honor voted on by 49 automotive journalists and industry experts. The awards have been handed out for 20 years.

The 2012 North America Car of the Year was the Hyundai Elantra and the Land Rover Ranger Rover Evoque was last year's Truck of the Year.

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