Toyota's report of a 27-percent gain in U.S. sales in 2012 is the latest welcome sign of recovery and revival by a company that has been tortured — by itself, by economic forces and even by Mother Nature — for the last four years. Management led by CEO Akio Toyoda has been clearing the decks for what promises to be Toyota's best year in several.
"With sales nearly doubling the [percentage] increase of a healthy industry" overall in the U.S. last year, Toyota "had a breakout year," said Jim Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., in a press release. "As we move into 2013 and the market sees continued growth, we expect to outperform the industry once again with another nine product launches on the horizon."
What's more, Toyota in 2012 reclaimed its title as the world's largest automaker, selling 9.7 million vehicles globally and leapfrogging GM and Volkswagen to get back on top.
It's not just a new-product avalanche and sales trends that have Toyota rejuvenated. There's also the matter of the $1-billion plus settlement between Toyota and class-action litigants over its unintended-acceleration recalls a couple of years ago. Toyota didn't admit culpability, but its executives figured putting the matter behind the company at this point was the best course, expensive as it was to do.
Toyota also has recovered more quickly from the supply-chain ravages of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami than many had predicted. After suffering badly through 2011, last year Toyota regained its bearings with ample inventories for its dealers worldwide, who delivered the vehicles to customers who had remained patient, and at the same time launched some important new nameplates such as extensions of the Prius hybrid family.
It's also boosted by the Japanese government's newly expressed determination to allow the value of the yen to decline, which will make Toyota's Japanese-made vehicles more cost-competitive.
"Toyota is now in the position — for the first time in years — where it is beating market expectations while its peers are disappointing," Clive Wiggins, a Tokyo-based autos analyst for Macquarie, wrote recently, according to the New York Times. "We expect earnings to continue beating expectations over the next three years."
The company's other brands also are on the move. Scion, Toyota's "youth" brand, continues targeting older millennials because so many recent college graduates just don't have the financial wherewithal to buy new cars. Meanwhile, Lexus hopes to regain the annual luxury-segment sales crown for 2013 in its most important market, the United States, after two straight years in which tight supplies stemming from the 2011 natural disaster forced Lexus to yield the title to German rivals.
Now, Toyoda is more free than in a long while to pursue one of his goals for the company, which is to make truly exciting automobiles — not just reliable ones. With the company now solidly back on the road to prosperity, the sometime race-car driver will have a little more fun in the driver's seat.