* Lentz sees full Toyota U.S. inventory by February
* Auto recovery to outstrip general economy growth-Lentz
* U.S. 2012 auto sales seen near 13.6 million-Lentz
By Bernie Woodall
BLUE SPRINGS, Miss., Nov 17 (Reuters) - Consumers opting to buy new cars after holding onto their vehicles through the recession will help push 2012 U.S. auto sales up 1 million vehicles, or about 8 percent, a Toyota Motor Corp executive said on Thursday.
Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales and the second-highest ranking U.S. official for the Japanese automaker, said 2012 sales would be around 13.6 million, up from about 12.6 million to 12.7 million this year.
He said Toyota would be back to full inventory by February, almost a year after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan that disrupted supplies to production plants in Japan and North America.
Lentz said U.S. auto sales would reach 15 million to 16 million by the middle of the decade, in line with other forecasts. Annual U.S. auto sales were running near 17 million until 2008 when the recession caused the biggest downturn in three decades. The low point was in 2009 when sales were 10.4 million and China became the world’s biggest auto market.
“I think we’re starting to see the automotive sector recover beyond what’s happening in the economy,” said Lentz.
The average vehicle age in the United States is about 11 years, but consumers are getting ready to buy new ones at greater rates, partly because slack sales since 2008 have left fewer recent-model used cars, Lentz said in an interview after Toyota opened a new assembly plant in northern Mississippi.
Lentz pointed to surveys showing that 11 percent of U.S. households have members who have expressed intent to buy a new vehicle in the next year, up from 8 percent in late 2010.
“At the same time we are seeing a decline in consumer confidence, we’re seeing the intent to purchase increasing,” said Lentz. “We’re starting to see pent-up demand now trumping whatever is going on in the overall economy.”
Lentz said he expected November U.S. auto sales to be 13.5 million to 13.6 million on the seasonally adjusted annualized basis the car industry uses to measure sales.
He said Toyota’s sales incentives, which have been falling, are not expected to spike as its U.S. inventory levels rise after the effects of the earthquake in Japan.
Toyota’s U.S. inventory slipped to a low of 120,000 vehicles earlier this year, half the level the automaker likes to have, Lentz said.
“We started this month around 160,000” vehicles in U.S. inventory, Lentz said. “We will probably get to 200,000 by the end of the year and probably February or so we will be back to 240,000.”