Toyota Motor Corp. appears poised to regain its position as the world's largest automaker, a remarkable turnaround after years of safety recalls, huge federal fines and the Japanese earthquake last year.
In short order, surging sales have put that all in the rearview mirror.
Toyota is likely to sell 9.7 million vehicles this year, surpassing second-place General Motors Co. by more than 1 million vehicles and setting a record for annual auto sales. That's generating huge profits, with earnings tripling in the latest quarter to $3.2 billion and sales surging almost 20 percent compared with a year earlier.
The U.S. — where Toyota's reputation suffered most through the recalls — is now a cash cow. Through the first 10 months of the year, the Japanese automaker sold more than 1.7 million cars and trucks in the country, a 30 percent gain and more than double the industry growth rate.
"Toyota has done some smart things," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "They have concentrated a lot of time and effort on the U.S., which is incredibly important because they make so much money here."
The Japanese automaker has launched 11 new or completely redesigned models in the U.S. in the last year, including new station wagon and commuter versions of its popular Prius hybrids. On Wednesday, the first day of the Los Angeles Auto Show, it launched a new-generation RAV4 sport utility vehicle. The current model is an aging vehicle facing stiff competition from newly redesigned offerings such as Ford Motor Co.'s Escape and Honda Motor Co.'s CR-V.
Toyota has ramped up its factories in the U.S., opening a Corolla plant in Mississippi and expanding pickup truck manufacturing in Texas. And at the urging of Chief Executive and founding-family member Akio Toyoda, the automaker is looking to inject some panache into its historically bland styling, especially for its Lexus luxury division.
Toyota now accounts for 14.4 percent of the U.S. auto market, up from 12.6 percent during the first 10 months of 2011. In retail — not including rental and fleet sales — the Toyota brand is the biggest in the U.S., outselling GM's Chevrolet.
Just three years ago, Toyota was the second-largest auto seller in America, with 17 percent of the market, and was closing in on a crippled GM, which was struggling with the stigma of bankruptcy and a federal bailout. But Toyota was derailed in a series of embarrassing recalls. In one high-profile accident, an improperly positioned floor mat in a sedan from Toyota's Lexus luxury division may have trapped the accelerator — causing the car to race down California Highway 125 near San Diego at more than 100 mph. The car crashed and burned, killing off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three members of his family.
That crash led to a safety investigation and recall of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles to fix the floor mat problem. After a Los Angeles Times series on unintended sudden acceleration, Toyota issued millions more recall notices to fix sticking gas pedals and other issues. Then, two years ago, Toyota paid record federal fines of nearly $50 million for failing to promptly inform regulators of defects and for delaying recalls. At one point it had to halt much of its production of new cars in the U.S. to fix recalled vehicles.
Just as the automaker started to recover, it was hobbled by last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which upended Toyota's manufacturing even on American soil. Toyota's share of U.S. auto sales slid to 12.9 percent, well below GM's and Ford's.
Several factors have helped Toyota survive the recalls and disaster-related production shutdowns, said James E. Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, the automaker's U.S. marketing arm.
First, there was "the loyalty of our consumers as we went from the financial crisis to the recalls to the tsunami," he said. "They stayed with us for the entire time."
Lentz said Toyota also benefited from a leap in the number of redesigned and new models for the U.S. market. The new models included the Prius V station wagon, the Prius C mini-car, a new Avalon full-size sedan, an electric version of the RAV-4, the gas-powered RAV-4 just revealed, and the Scion FR-S sports car, which has received top reviews by the automotive press.
Despite the progress, Toyota still struggles with large recalls. In November, it recalled almost 700,000 Prius hybrids to fix a steering shaft problem. About 350,000 of those hybrids also will have to have their electric water pumps replaced. An additional 2 million vehicles were recalled worldwide to fix the same problems.
In October, the automaker recalled 2.5 million vehicles nationally to fix a faulty power-window switch that has been linked to at least nine injuries and several hundred reports of smoke and fire.
"Toyota does not want to wear the title of king or queen of recalls," said George Cook, a professor at the University of Rochester's business school. "The brand image has to be damaged at some point in time, and consumers have to start questioning Toyota on overall quality control."
But by one important measure, Toyota has rebuilt its reputation for reliability, which the company earned over decades.
When Consumer Reports issued its annual predicted reliability report in November, Toyota's three brands — Scion, Toyota and Lexus — swept the top spots. Moreover, 16 of the Toyota brand's 27 models earned the magazine's highest rating, and the Prius C earned the top reliability score overall.
That has made life better for Fritz Hitchcock, who owns three Toyota dealerships in Southern California and once bristled at the steady stream of headlines about sticky gas pedals and recalls. His profits have improved with Toyota's fortunes.
He credits both an improving economy and the leadership of Toyoda. Hitchcock said Toyota has long had a strong manufacturing infrastructure, but Toyoda is pushing the company to produce more compelling cars.
"I think it is the attitude from the top. Akio Toyoda has a competitive attitude," Hitchcock said. "People better not underestimate us."
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