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Toyota sees U.S. industry growth slowing by half in 2014

Toyota Motor Corp's FCV concept car is seen at the 43rd Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Toyota Motor Corp's FCV concept car is seen at the 43rd Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Ben Klayman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The United States automotive industry will move into the slow lane in 2014 as fewer buyers replace aging vehicles and growth drops to half this year's rate, the head of Toyota Motor Corp's <7203.T> North American operations said on Wednesday.

While U.S. industry sales are expected to grow by 1 million vehicles to 15.5 million this year, Toyota North American Chief Executive Jim Lentz said he expects the 2014 total to be closer to 16 million.

"Do I think we're going to grow another million this next year? I don't think so," Lentz said in an interview at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

"We're going to see a tapering off of that growth over time because a lot of that pent-up demand that was out there has been satisfied."

In addition to new vehicles and lower interest rates, Lentz, like many industry executives, credited growth this year to the need for consumers to replace vehicles that are now on average more than 11 years old, a record.

While his company hasn't finalized its forecast for total U.S. market sales in 2014, Lentz said the general consensus was around 16 million, and Toyota's estimate would likely be close to that total.

Honda Motor Co's <7267.T> U.S. CEO Tetsuo Iwamura said on Wednesday at the show that his company expects U.S. industry sales next year to be in the high 15 million range, above this year's volumes.

Lentz said he expects pent-up demand for vehicles other than full-size pickup trucks to taper off next year. Pickup truck demand will remain strong because that is tied to the recovering housing and construction markets and the average age of those vehicles remains very high.

"When you look at it segment by segment, with the exception of pickup truck I think a lot of that pent-up demand has probably already been satisfied," he said.

AUTOMAKERS DISCIPLINED

Lentz said the growth the U.S. industry sees next year will be driven by lower unemployment and higher consumer confidence, and said he was not concerned about a return to profit-sapping incentive wars.

The executive said most automakers have remained disciplined about incentives. Most could easily reduce capacity if needed by simply eliminating overtime shifts at assembly plants, he said, rather than be forced to offer consumers ever more generous deals.

Lentz also called reports that Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd's <7270.T> Subaru brand would stop building Toyota Camry sedans at its Indiana plant "premature," saying the two sides were still negotiating.

The contract is expected to end after 2016. Lentz said Subaru builds 80,000 to 100,000 cars annually for Toyota.

"We're evaluating whether or not we need that capacity at Subaru or not," he said. "There's still conversations going on within the company and between the two companies, but I can tell you a decision has not been made."

A Subaru spokesman confirmed the sides are still in talks.

Lentz also said Toyota realizes it needs to become more bold in its designs for the flagship Camry mid-sized sedan, citing increased competition in the segment over the last three to five years driven by Hyundai Motor Co's <005380.KS> Sonata.

"We understand we need to get more aggressive in the styling of that car," he said of the Camry.

Lentz said Toyota would rather spend more to improve the car's design than offer higher incentives. "The sooner we can make modifications to the vehicle, the better off we are."

Toyota's last major redesign of the Camry was in 2011. LMC Automotive said the next major overhaul is not scheduled until the summer of 2016.

Lentz declined to comment on the timetable for any design changes.

(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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