Sunday, 28 May 2017

Michael Bach Atlanta | Toyota rallies the troops, waves the flag

CEO headlines dealer meeting, emphasizes U.S. commitment

In an effort to dispel any doubt about how seriously Toyota takes its commitment to the U.S., CEO Akio Toyoda himself made an appearance at the brand's annual dealer meeting last week in Las Vegas.

Toyoda sought to assure the more than 4,000 attendees that the Toyota brand is meeting the demands of U.S. consumers now while also setting itself up for success in the future through its electric-vehicle and artificial intelligence units, according to a Toyota spokesman and several dealers in attendance.

Toyoda also looked to give dealers an extra dose of motivation ahead of the critical launch of the redesigned, eighth-generation Camry that's due by early fall.

Much of the focus at the national dealer meeting beyond Toyoda's remarks was on emphasizing the "American-ness" of the Camry and the automaker's vast U.S. manufacturing and research footprint.

With Toyota celebrating its 60th year in the U.S., such messaging was inevitable. But it has taken on added urgency within Toyota in the wake of President Trump's often withering criticism of automakers that import vehicles to the U.S., including from Mexico and Canada. As a candidate, he targeted Ford, and just last week he reportedly denounced German automakers.

Dealers were reminded of previously announced initiatives that Toyota sees as reaffirming its commitment to the U.S. These include an expansion of its Princeton, Ind., light-truck plant and its Toyota Connected data hub in Texas, near the company's new North American headquarters.

Yet Toyoda's pep talk was also a reflection of the troubles his company is currently facing. Toyota's U.S. sales this year are down 3.6 percent through April to 650,420 units; that decline is entirely due to slowing car sales, which have dropped 10 percent on the year.

Globally, the automaker reported that net income dropped 21 percent in the fiscal year ended March 31; Toyota expects a decline of 18 percent for the current fiscal year, which would mark the first back-to-back profit decline in more than 20 years.

Toyota has plenty riding on the success of the next-generation Camry, and made that clear to dealers in Las Vegas.

The 2018 model rides on the same modular platform as the current Prius and new C-HR subcompact crossover. Toyota plans to emphasize its sportiness as well as its popularity among Americans. It has been the best-selling car in America for the past 15 years, although it's being eclipsed within Toyota's lineup by the RAV4 compact crossover.

"With the new Camry, we think we have the opportunity to re-ignite the midsize segment," Bill Fay, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota, said in a statement to Automotive News.

Yet the Camry will face the same headwinds as all cars currently: Consumers just like crossovers better. On that score, Toyoda also underscored efforts to boost light-truck capacity and tilt the brand's mix away from cars.

In other product news:
The redesigned Camry will be the first Toyota to get Entune 3.0, a new version of the infotainment system that will include cellphone-activated features such as remote locking/unlocking and vehicle locator. V-6 models will also have an option to wirelessly update navigation systems.

Toyota is adding two new trim lines to the C-HR, which was initially planned as a single-spec Scion vehicle. Toyota will add a base LE trim and a top-end Limited trim to the current version, dubbed XLE.

The RAV4 Adventure, Tundra TRD Sport and Sequoia TRD Sport models will go on sale in September. Toyota is targeting 40,000 annual sales of the more rugged RAV4 Adventure model, 1,300 sales of the new Sequoia model and 11,500 of the new Tundra model.

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