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Auto Outlook: Toyota bullish on U.S. comeback

By AL SWANSON
1/11
Auto Outlook: Toyota bullish on U.S. comeback
Allison Stephens (L) and Francesca Montini of Ford demonstrate how they use motion-capture technology to help engineers make design decisions before cars go into production during the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place on February 9, 2012 in Chicago. Ford also utilizes the same technology to simulate production tasks in order to design jobs that are less physically stressful for their workers. UPI/Brian Kersey | License Photo

CHICAGO, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Toyota Motor North America President Yoshimi Inaba says he thinks "it's a good time to be in the auto business."

Toyota has had its share of difficulties in recent years, from recalls to lawsuits over unintended sudden acceleration claims to the fallout from last March's devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan.

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GM surpassed Toyota and Volkswagen to regain the title as the No. 1 automaker in 2011, with Toyota falling to third place.

But Inaba, who earned his MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business in the mid-1970s, said the automaker has always embraced the Japanese ethic of hard work over the long haul.

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"Over my 40-plus year career, I've never lost my passion for the auto business … and I must tell you … I'm more excited about the industry today than ever. Why? Because after several incredibly tough years, the auto industry is making a strong comeback."

At the end of his luncheon speech Wednesday to The Economic Club of Chicago at the 104th Chicago Auto Show, Inaba was asked what American executives could learn from their Japanese counterparts.

"Take a long-term outlook. Don't worry about this quarter. Stay focused on the real future," he said.

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Inaba said Toyota did not lay off a single worker despite last year's natural disasters, which halted production in Japan and the United States, and flooding that disrupted the flow of electronics and parts from Thailand. Toyota's loyal dealers stuck with the company through the troubles, he said.

Toyota had 1,200 dealers 10 years ago when it sold 1 million cars in the United States. Sales have doubled to 2 million vehicles annually, with basically the same 1,200-dealer network, and 19 new or updated Toyota, Lexus and Scion models are anticipated in 2012, including a new fuel-sipping full-size Toyota Avalon sedan.

Nearly half are expected to be hybrid or electric vehicles.

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Toyota cut its annual profit outlook in December but revised it upward in early February to a net $2.6 billion for the year ending March 31 -- about half of the company's profit the previous fiscal year.

In a sign of its comeback, Inaba announced Toyota was investing $400 million in its Princeton, Ind., manufacturing plant to build the Highlander hybrid crossover sports-ute, creating 400 jobs. The economic recession waylaid plans to build Prius hybrids at a new plant in Blue Springs, Miss., but Toyota added 2,000 employees there in November.

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Toyota has 30,000 U.S. employees and has invested $18 billion in the United States at 10 plants.

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Seventy percent of U.S.-made Toyotas -- nine vehicles -- are sold in the United States. Toyota has begun shifting vehicle production from Japan closer to where the vehicles are sold because of the strong yen.

"Our exports of 'made-in-America' products to 21 countries have topped 100,000 vehicles … and we've just begun exporting American Camry sedans and Sienna minivans to South Korea," he said. "So, there are a lot of fuel-efficient vehicles coming to America's highways sooner rather than later."

In his address at the lakefront McCormick Place Exposition Center, Inaba said hybrids were key to making vehicles more environmentally and economically responsible and he predicted hydrogen fuel-cell technology would be a viable alternative fuel in 2015.

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Toyota is exhibiting its hydrogen fuel-cell concept Lexus LF-LC at the 2012 Chicago Auto Show which opened to the public Friday and is expected to draw more than 1.2 million visitors during its 10-day run.

"Imagine the fun you could have driving a car like that while doing your part to conserve energy and the environment at the same time," Inaba said of the LF-LC, adding when people see the sleek concept, they want Toyota to build it.

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Inaba said compared to the average car, since 2000, Prius has saved 1.1 billion gallons of gas, eliminated 16 million tons of carbon dioxide from the environment and saved $2.9 billion in fuel costs.

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"In short, it's a great time to be in the auto business," he said.


Brave new cars

Volvo, now owned by Chinese company Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, also believes in hybrids and electric plug-ins, but for the immediate future, for Swedish automaker is banking on efficient four-cylinder conventional gasoline engines.

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"The auto industry is on a very solid footing," John Maloney, President Volvo Cars North America, told the Midwest Automotive Media Association breakfast at the Chicago Auto Show.

He said the industry expects to sell 13.7 million vehicles this year up from 11.5 million in 2010. Volvo sales rose 27 percent.

Maloney said positive signs were:

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-- Jobs being added in all sectors

-- Consumer confidence rising

-- Gas prices not seen as a barrier

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-- Car registrations up

-- Legislative policy for energy savings regulations

And equally important, fuel efficiency improving.

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Volvo's XC60 plug-in hybrid concept would have a range approaching 600 miles before refueling.

"Innovation will be front and center for us," he said, explaining Volvo wants to be associated with safety in the minds of consumers.

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"No one will be killed or seriously injured in a Volvo by 2020," Maloney said.

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Among Volvo's safety innovations will be animal detection to protect drivers confronted by a deer or a moose on the road. Road collisions with large animals typically end with seriously damaged or totaled vehicles.

Volvo's laser radar and camera-based City Safety system already detects the presence of pedestrians as well as stopped or slow moving vehicles when the Volvo is traveling slower than 19 mph.

"All in all our safety future is very exciting and we're not going to be standing still," Maloney said.


"Winning"

It wouldn't be an auto show without awards for all things automotive.

Television's longest-running automotive magazine, MotorWeek, this week presented its annual Driver's Choice Awards, and the winner was the Ford Mustang Boss 302.

Named "Best of the Year" in the 2012 awards, the rear-wheel drive American muscle car generates 444-horsepower from its 5.0-liter twin-cam V8. The $41,000 Mustang has nostalgic black accents, side stripes and power bulge hood and rides on 19-inch wheels but still can get nearly 20 miles per gallon.

"The Mustang Boss 302 is the best example this year of a car where all aspects of engineering come together," said MotorWeek host and executive producer John Davis. "As a total package, the Mustang Boss 302 is just an outstanding ride."

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Winners in other categories were:

-- Best Subcompact Car: Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent

-- Best Compact Car: Subaru Impreza

-- Best Family Sedan: Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima

-- Best Minivan: Honda Odyssey

-- Best Convertible: Chevrolet Camaro Convertible

-- Best Luxury Sedan: Infinity M

-- Best Sport Sedan: Volkswagen Jetta GLI

-- Best Sport Coupe: Cadillac CTS Coupe

-- Best Performance Car: Ford Mustang Boss 302

-- Best Small Utility: Mazda CX-5

-- Best Large Utility: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango

-- Best Pickup Truck: Ford F-150

-- Best Eco-Friendly: Toyota Prius Family

-- Best Dream Machine: Ferrari 458 Italia, Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, Porsche 911

The Chicago-based Midwest Automotive Media Association named the 2012 Volkswagen Passat winner of its second annual Family Vehicle of the Year award.

The nominees had to have four-doors and a manufacturers suggested retail price of less than $50,000.

The Tennessee-made Passat beat 10 other contenders including the 2011 Chevrolet Volt hybrid, 2011 Dodge Durango, 2011 Dodge Journey, 2012 Ford Edge, 2012 Ford Focus, 2011 Ford Explorer, 2012 Honda Pilot, 2012 Mazda Mazda5, 2012 Subaru Impreza and 2012 Toyota Camry.

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