Toyota Motor Corp. appears poised to regain its position as the world’s largest automaker, a remarkable turnaround after years of safety recalls, huge federal fines and the Japanese earthquake last year.
In short order, surging sales have put that all in the rearview mirror.
Toyota is likely to sell 9.7 million vehicles this year, surpassing second-place General Motors Co. by more than 1 million vehicles and setting a record for annual auto sales. That’s generating huge profits, with earnings tripling in the latest quarter to $3.2 billion and sales surging almost 20 percent compared with a year earlier.
The U.S. — where Toyota’s reputation suffered most through the recalls — is now a cash cow. Through the first 10 months of the year, the Japanese automaker sold more than 1.7 million cars and trucks in the country, a 30 percent gain and more than double the industry growth rate.
“Toyota has done some smart things,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive. “They have concentrated a lot of time and effort on the U.S., which is incredibly important because they make so much money here.”
The Japanese automaker has launched 11 new or completely redesigned models in the U.S. in the last year, including new station wagon and commuter versions of its popular Prius hybrids. On Wednesday, the first day of the Los Angeles Auto Show, it launched a new-generation RAV4 sport utility vehicle. The current model is an aging vehicle facing stiff competition from newly redesigned offerings such as Ford Motor Co.’s Escape and Honda Motor Co.’s CR-V.
Toyota has ramped up its factories in the U.S., opening a Corolla plant in Mississippi and expanding pickup truck manufacturing in Texas. And at the urging of Chief Executive and founding-family member Akio Toyoda, the automaker is looking to inject some panache into its historically bland styling, especially for its Lexus division.
Toyota now accounts for 14.4 percent of the U.S. auto market, up from 12.6 percent during the first 10 months of 2011. In retail — not including rental and fleet sales — the Toyota brand is the biggest in the U.S., outselling GM’s Chevrolet.
Several factors have helped Toyota survive the recalls and disaster-related production shutdowns, said James E. Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, the automaker’s U.S. marketing arm. One, he said, was “the loyalty of our consumers.”