By Ben Klayman
NEW YORK, March 28 Toyota Motor Corp's
top North American executive on Thursday voiced optimism about
the U.S. economy, and said the aging cars and trucks in
consumers' garages will continue to drive industry demand this
Jim Lentz, newly appointed chief executive of North America,
said the Japanese automaker sees U.S. industry new-car sales
hitting 15.3 million this year, up from 14.5 million in 2012.
Just six months ago, its 2013 forecast was for 14.7 million, but
the company at the time believed talk of the fiscal cliff's
impact would dampen the economy.
"We're cautiously optimistic about a growing economy, but
there's still a lot of uncertainty that can derail the
consumer's attitude," Lentz said in an interview after the New
York Auto Show.
However, his fears are offset by consumers aging cars, which
now average an all-time high of more than 11 years, and the
improving mood of consumers as the housing and stock markets
"When people can look at their 401ks and see that not only
have they not fallen, but they are now starting to gain ... that
is a real positive to overall consumer confidence," Lentz said.
Toyota should sell about 2.2 million cars and trucks under
its three brands - Toyota, Lexus and Scion - this year, up from
2.08 million in 2012. The company is introducing nine new or
updated vehicles this year.
Automakers are scheduled to report March U.S. sales on
Tuesday and Lentz said Toyota expects the industry's annual
sales rate to finish at about 15.4 million vehicles. That would
mark the fifth straight month above the 15 million rate.
However, Toyota has no plans to revisit its full-year
estimate at this point as Lentz said the company is forecasting
the sales rate to slow to a range of 15.1 million to 15.2
million in the second quarter.
Lentz said a tightening of interest rates by the U.S.
Federal Reserve would have a minimal impact this year and in
2014 on consumers, many of whom have monthly car payments.
"Whether you lease or whether you borrow money to buy a car,
it's still all about the monthly payment," he said. "Right now,
if you look at car payments relative to income, cars have
probably never been cheaper even though the price of cars
continues to go up. That monthly payment is still very fixed."
However, Lentz agreed that the high residual values that
automakers are setting on their leased vehicles is not
sustainable. He said Toyota is already adjusting its residual
values going forward.
"In 2014-2015, this low, low lease party will come to an
end," he said.