Toyota Motor Corp., seeking record U.S. Prius sales in 2012, said increased supply of the hybrid helped the automaker beat analysts’ estimates for February sales and will buoy gains in March amid rising fuel prices.
Asia’s largest carmaker reported yesterday that sales of Toyota, Lexus and Scion vehicles rose 12 percent last month, more than the 8.2 percent average of seven estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Prius sales, including the v wagon, were up 52 percent to 20,593, the highest in almost four years. The total for all Toyota and Lexus hybrids climbed 60 percent.
“They’re targeting 220,000 Prius sales,” said Alan Baum, principal of Baum & Associates, a provider of auto-industry analysis in West Bloomfield, Michigan. “Given the assumption we’ll have high gas prices into the summer, this looks like a reasonably good bet.”
Toyota’s gain contributed to a 16 percent increase for all Asian brands last month, as the industrywide U.S. annual sales pace was the highest since February 2008, according to Autodata Corp. With rising gasoline prices stoking demand for fuel-efficient vehicles and signs of a strengthening economy helping light trucks, the industry’s sales also advanced 16 percent.
Consumers gained confidence in February as the Dow Jones Industrial Average exceeded 13,000 for the first time since May 2008 and the unemployment rate fell to the lowest in three years. The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline has increased 14 percent this year to $3.74 as of Feb. 29, according to AAA, the largest U.S. motorist group.
Toyota starts March with more than 25,000 Prius hatchbacks and wagons already on the way to dealers, or at least 29 days of supply, one of the highest levels it has had in the U.S. for the gasoline-electric model, Bob Carter, the company’s group vice president of U.S sales, said in a conference call yesterday. The Prius c subcompact and plug-in model will also go on sale this month and boost sales for the hybrid, he said.
“I like our positioning in the market,” Carter said on the call. “We projected an increase in fuel prices as we moved into the spring. We didn’t expect fuel prices would move this quickly and this rapidly.”
That’s benefiting dealers such as Don Mushin, general manager at Toyota of Hollywood in Los Angeles, which says it’s among the top three Prius sellers in the U.S. by volume. The dealership’s supply of Prius models has nearly doubled in the past couple of months, and the new small version of the hybrid that arrives within the week should be a particularly strong seller, he said.
“It’s a whole different story from a year ago,” said Mushin. “If gas prices go to $5, I think the Prius c that’s priced at around $20,000 will probably be the commuter car for everybody.”
The Toyota City, Japan-based automaker sold 159,462 vehicles in the U.S. last month. Toyota also benefited from demand for the revamped Camry sedan that went on sale in late 2011, with deliveries rising 27 percent.
The carmaker is running no-interest loan offers for Avalon sedans, Tundra pickups, Venza wagons, Highlander and RAV4 sport-utility vehicles, and Sienna minivans to keep sales growing across the Toyota brand.
“They are clearly in the best position they’ve been in in the last two years,” Jesse Toprak, industry analyst for pricing service TrueCar.com, said in a telephone interview.
Toyota’s market share in February was 13.9 percent, according to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based Autodata. That was a drop of 0.4 point from a year earlier, as the company’s sales gain trailed the industry’s.
Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. also reported February sales that topped analysts’ estimates.
Toyota fell 0.6 percent to 3,315 yen at 9:55 a.m. in Tokyo trading, while Nissan and Honda were little changed. Hyundai rose 3 percent and Kia advanced 1.7 percent in Seoul.
Honda, based in Tokyo, said sales for the Honda and Acura brands grew 12 percent to 110,157, including a 42 percent surge for the Civic small car. Nissan, based in Yokohama, Japan, posted a 16 percent increase to 106,731 Nissan and Infiniti vehicles.
The averages of seven estimates were for gains of 4.5 percent for Honda and 6.1 percent for Nissan.
Hyundai and Kia, affiliates that operate separately, combined for a 26 percent jump from a year earlier. The Seoul-based companies beat the average of five analysts’ estimates for a 19 percent gain. Sales of Hyundai’s Accent small car were up 29 percent. Kia benefited as deliveries of the Optima midsize sedan more than doubled.
Honda’s February gain followed a January increase that was the automaker’s first monthly advance since its inventory plunged after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in March.
“February felt great,” Al Castignetti, Nissan’s vice president of U.S. sales, said in a phone interview. “Consumer demand is coming back, and I think it’s coming back fairly aggressively.”
Honda’s U.S. market share was 9.6 percent last month, a decline from 9.9 percent a year earlier; Nissan’s was unchanged at 9.3 percent; and combined share for Hyundai and Kia was 8.4 percent, an increase from 7.7 percent, according to Autodata.