DETROIT Toyota Motor Corp's (7203.T) North American operations are looking to become a big exporter as the automaker gets hit by a strong yen that has eroded profits on vehicles shipped from Japan, a top executive said on Tuesday.
"We are looking for the opportunity for any North American product to be exported," Yoshimi Inaba, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor North America, told a small group of reporters at the Detroit auto show.
"We have 12 models now being produced in North America, and each one of them has its own potential. We are thoroughly reviewing the potential," he said.
Toyota made headlines last year by announcing the start of Camry exports from the United States to South Korea, instead of shipping them from neighboring Japan.
In 2010, the latest year for which data is available, Toyota exported 16,700 vehicles from the United States to 19 countries, mainly in the Middle East, across six models: Avalon, Sequoia, Tacoma, Tundra, Camry and Sienna. Including markets in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) zone, exports totaled 100,000 vehicles, Toyota said.
"This is just the beginning of a new era of North America being a source of supply to many other parts of the world," Inaba said.
Toyota has said it wants to reduce its exports out of Japan, now around 1.7 million vehicles a year, to 1.5 million to escape currency losses. It is simultaneously looking to increase Japanese sales by 200,000 vehicles a year to keep its pledge of producing at least 3 million vehicles at home.
Inaba said Toyota would look for ways to utilize its vast global sales network to market the vehicles for a niche segment of customers that may share U.S. consumers' unique taste for bigger cars and trucks.
"We have a very strong base of world distributors. I think we can take advantage of their sales network and their power of marketing," he said.
Inaba also said he wanted Toyota's North American operations to have a bigger role in developing vehicles -- a task performed mainly in Japan.
BIG U.S. SALES GROWTH IN 2012
After a brutal year of supply chain disruptions, Toyota is expecting double-digit sales growth in the United States in 2012.
The automaker has no sales target but has given a ballpark sales forecast of 1.90 million Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles in the United States this year, up 15 percent from 2011. Last year, Toyota's market share fell 2.3 points to 12.9 percent as sales fell 6.7 percent.
Jim Lentz, president of Toyota's U.S. sales arm, said he expected to grow this year without relying on incentives as it rolls out 19 new or refreshed models across the three brands.
"If you add the Camry, Camry Hybrid, Yaris and Prius v that we launched late last year (to the 19 models), 40 percent of our volume is going to come from new or refreshed models this year," Lentz told Reuters, noting that number was at 7 percent last year.
"So in our case, there's no need for us to be spending a lot of incentive money."
Toyota spent an average $1,987 in incentives per vehicle last year, below the industry's average of $2,520.
At the Detroit auto show on Tuesday, Toyota unveiled the latest addition to its growing fleet of hybrid cars, the Prius c city car, which gets 53 miles per gallon and will start at less then $19,000. The car, launched as the Aqua in Japan, will go on sale in spring in the United States. It will launch the plug-in Prius in March.
Toyota will also introduce its first pure electric cars this year -- the electric iQ microcar and the RAV4 EV developed with Tesla Motors Inc (TSLA.O).
Globally, Toyota is expecting record sales in 2012 of 8.48 million vehicles, up 20 percent, as it meets pent-up demand in the wake of last year's supply disruptions.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki, editing by Matthew Lewis)