* Toyota expects to sell 2.2 mln vehicles in U.S., best since 2008
* Honda aims to break record sales in U.S. in 2013
* Toyota certain to regain top global autos sales spot
By Yoko Kubota
DETROIT, Jan 14 Japanese automakers are optimistic about even better sales in the United States this year, helped by a weakening yen and product launch cycles, after posting robust sales last year as they left behind the effects of natural disasters in 2011.
Toyota Motor Corp, which on Monday became certain to regain the world's top sales spot for the first time since 2010, sees for this year the strongest U.S. sales since 2008, an executive told Reuters on Monday.
The third-biggest automaker in the United States after GM and Ford is expecting to sell about 2.2 million vehicles this year, up about 6 percent from a year ago, Jim Lentz, the President and Chief Executive of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. said at the Detroit auto show.
Honda Motor Co, the No.5 automaker in the United States, is also optimistic about U.S. sales for 2013, aiming to break its record sales of 1.55 million vehicles it had sold back in 2007, Executive Vice President Tetsuo Iwamura said.
With strong sales of its key models including the redesigned Accord sedan released in the United States in September, Honda sees a chance to expand in the U.S. and neighboring markets, said Chief Executive Takanobu Ito.
"Now is a very good time for us to enhance our presence in North America," Ito told reporters.
Last year, Japanese firms sold more than 5.3 million vehicles combined in the United States in 2012, up 20 percent from a year ago when it was struggling to recover from natural disasters that disrupted the supply chain. Their combined share rose 2 percentage points to 36.9 percent.
Toyota, which has projected its 2012 global vehicle sales at 9.7 million vehicles, on Monday became certain to grab back the title of the world's best-selling automaker after General Motors said it sold 9.28 million vehicles globally last year. Volkswagen sold 9.07 million vehicles in 2012.
YEN DROP HELPS JAPANESE BRANDS
The value of the yen, which was at 78 against the dollar in October, has been dropping as Japan's new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, pursues a policy mix of bold monetary easing and a big fiscal spending, and was trading at around 89.5 yen on Monday.
Toyota, which locally produces about 70 percent of the vehicles sold in North America, said the weakening yen means it could import more vehicles from Japan to the United States, including the luxury Lexus models that are still mostly produced in Japan, as well as hybrids like the Prius that are not produced locally, Lentz said.
Meanwhile, Honda, which locally manufactures about 90 percent of its vehicles sold in North America, wants to boost that rate to 95 percent through capacity expansion at its Indiana and Alabama plants as well as its new plant in Mexico, Ito said.
Honda unveiled the concept version of the compact car Fit-based SUV at the auto show on Monday. Ito said the SUV is set to go on sale first in Japan in end-2013, followed by the United States, and will be produced in Mexico, as well as in Asia.
Mazda Motor Corp said it expects the U.S. market at 15 to 15.5 million vehicles in 2013.
"I'm very optimistic on the next several years on the industry, and I'm extremely optimistic knowing what I know for Mazda, for us to be able to outgrow the industry and outpace the industry and certainly return to profitability," James O'Sullivan, President and Chief Executive of Mazda North American Operations, told Reuters.
Toyota sees the U.S. market size at around 14.7 million vehicles, up from the 14.5 million vehicles in 2012, a conservative assumption compared with Honda that expects the market at 14.8 to 15.3 million vehicles, and Nissan, with a 15.3 million vehicle forecast.