Toyota's latest Avalon: Off to a good start in the U.S. market, but can the Tundra follow suit?
March will mark the second anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that leveled much of Japan's northeast coast and sent the nation's auto industry into a tailspin.
While many psychic, physical and economic scars remain nationwide, Toyota, Japan's leading auto brand, is back on top of the world: Today, the company reported a 23 percent rise in quarterly net profit and raised its annual profit forecast by 10 percent.
Toyota and its Lexus and Scion brands are all benefiting from a snapback in sales and market share in the U.S., as Toyota has managed to get through its recall fiasco in 2010 — as well as the natural disaster in 2011 — with flying colors. Toyota reported a 26 percent gain in January sales in the U.S. market — more than double the industry average gain for the month. Sales of the new RAV4, as well as a new version of the Avalon full-size sedan, have started off strong.
A rewarding aspect of Toyota's recovery: Many thousands of American consumers paitently waited additional weeks and months for the Toyota and Lexus vehicles they wanted as the company continued to restore its supply base. One reason is reflected in the new designation of Lexus by Kelley Blue Book as the top luxury brand in its 2013 5-Year Cost to Own Awards.
"Consumers are responding to our new products and to the great value we're able to offer," Bill Fay, Toyota's general manager, said in a conference call last week. Another indicator: Toyota gained significantly in terms of brand buzz from its Super Bowl ad and related social-media campaign, while other auto brands didn't fare as well.
Toyota has also launched a playful post-Super Bowl campaign illustrating ways to keep friends and spouses from purchasing a RAV4. Here's one of the spots:
Toyota's updward trend is also reflected in a new finding by Consumer Reports. Toyota has come back to occupy the No. 1 spot in its latest survey of Americans' automotive brand loyalty, with Ford and Honda finishing second and third, respectively. The evaluation was based on a random sampling of American opinion toward car brands in seven areas: quality, safety, value, performance, design, technology and environmental friendliness.
Toyota also re-took the top spot in global sales from GM in 2012.
Now that Toyota is back atop the automotive world, the company is trying to press its advantages.
While it plans to ship more production to the U.S. from Japan, Toyota's brands and products — especially Lexus — are enjoying a short-term benefit from the recent drop in value of the yen to the dollar by 14 percent. Toyota still makes more than half its vehicles in Japan.
Toyota is also taking another serious run at the pickup-truck market — which is leading the continued U.S. sales recovery. Toyota and Nissan never have put more than a slight dent in the segment, which has been dominated by GM, Ford and Chrysler.
However, Toyota is set to reveal a redesigned Tundra pickup at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Ram recently unveiled a new version of its 1500; Chevy plans a second-quarter launch of an overhauled Silverado; and Ford continues to goose F-150 sales with the popularity of options, featuring the fuel-efficient EcoBoost six-cylinder engine.
Toyota hasn't revealed details of the new Tundra, but Bob Cater, senior vice president of U.S. auto operations, told Bloomberg: "We're going to be a bigger player in the pickup market."