CHICAGO Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.s top executive expects 2013 sales in the United States to top this year.
Jim Lentz, president and chief executive officer of the Torrance, Calif.-based automaker, noted that public opinion of the auto industry has taken a huge turnaround.
Automakers "stepped up their game," he said at the National Automobile Dealers Association/J.D. Power & Associates Western Automotive Conference in Los Angeles. "We paid closer attention to our customers; we worked through issues with regulators; we formed alliances and partnerships to meet future needs; and we made the best cars weve ever produced."
Lentz said the U.S. economy grew 2 percent in the third quarter, unemployment dropped to a three-and-a-half-year low, the consumer confidence index jumped to a five-year high and the housing market has turned the corner.
"Our annual U.S. sales forecast for 2012 is 14.3 million vehicles, an increase of about 1.5 million over 2011. The forecast ahead looks even better: Analysts predict sales will reach 16 million (vehicles) again in just a few years," Lentz told conference attendees.
The roots of such optimism include pent-up demand. "In the U.S., there are more than 245 million cars on the road and the average age of these vehicles has hit a record high of 11 years. More than 20 percent of these cars are over 16 years old," he said.
Vehicle loans have never been cheaper, and younger buyers are returning to the market at a higher rate than any other age category, Lentz said, citing a J.D. Power study. That trend "bodes well for market longevity."
Automakers also are finding a growing consumer base among Hispanicsa segment of the U.S. population that "will have a projected buying power of $1.5 trillion by 2015."
Fuel economy will continue to be a driver of new vehicle sales, Lentz said. "Today in the U.S., there are nearly 300 fuel-efficient models, including 40 hybrids, 33 clean diesels, plug-ins and pure electric vehicles that achieve 30 miles per gallon or more. Thats up by an incredible 330 percent in just six years."