Toyota Says Prius Line May Not Reach 2013 U.S. Target

Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius hybrid line, coming off record U.S. sales last year, may not reach a target for growth in 2013 as gasoline prices fall faster than the automaker expected, its top North American executive said.

“It’ll be a challenge,” Jim Lentz, Toyota’s North American chief executive officer, said in an interview yesterday in New York. “We’ll continue to push Prius and Prius family, but if it ends up that demand is less than the sales forecast, that may be adjusted,” he said without elaborating.

Toyota last month said it planned to sell about 250,000 Prius models in the U.S. this year, up 5.6 percent from 236,659 in 2012 even while competing against the best American cars in a generation. Sales of the top-selling hybrid line -- comprising the main Prius hatchback, v wagon, c subcompact and plug-in Prius -- dropped 8.4 percent in the first quarter to 55,724.

Sales of gasoline-electric cars and trucks have expanded in the past decade, albeit fluctuating with fuel prices. The average U.S. cost of regular grade gasoline was $3.506 a gallon as of April 18, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge report, down 9.9 percent from $3.891 a year earlier.

While Prius sales are down this year, combined deliveries of all Toyota and Lexus hybrids are up 2.4 percent to 83,642, according to the company. In some cases, Prius owners are shifting to recently added hybrid models including a version of the Toyota Avalon sedan and compact Lexus CT200h, Lentz said.

“Since we now have about 2 million hybrid owners in the U.S., we do have people coming in to buy new hybrids again,” said Lentz, who is based at the company’s Torrance, California, U.S. sales office. Ford Motor Co.’s push to expand its U.S. hybrid sales isn’t a factor for the Prius slowdown, he said.

Hybrid Competition

“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the competition from Ford,” Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst with Irvine, California-based auto-market researcher Kelley Blue Book, said in a phone interview. “Toyota’s hybrids are generally doing well, but they might be doing better if not for models like Ford’s C-Max and Fusion hybrid.”

Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota City, Japan-based Toyota, yesterday in New York declined to discuss when the automaker founded by his grandfather would begin making Prius models in North America. Prius, built solely in Japan, is the largest line of models imported to the U.S.

While consumers will still consider Toyota first when they want to buy a hybrid, given the company’s history with such vehicles, competition is growing, Gutierrez said. “They’re still likely to consider Toyota, but there are a lot more options to choose from now and that’s only going to increase.”

The company’s American depositary receipts fell rose 1.5 percent to $112.26 yesterday in New York. The receipts gained 20 percent this year, more than the 9 percent increase for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

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