TOKYO (Reuters) - For most companies, trebling quarterly profit to almost $3 billion and outselling all global rivals would be welcome news. But for Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), Japan's biggest car maker, it's still too early to say it has emerged from years of crisis.
Toyota is likely to say later on Monday that it earned a net profit of 228.8 billion yen in July-September, close to three times its year-ago profit when it was still reeling from the Japan earthquake and tsunami and Thai floods that ruptured its supply chain.
This year has seen improved sales in the United States, Toyota's biggest market, and in Southeast Asia. Over the first nine months of the year, Toyota and its group companies sold 7.4 million vehicles, more than any other car maker.
Toyota is less likely to cut its full-year forecasts than Nissan Motor Co (7201.T), which reports quarterly results on Tuesday, or Honda Motor Co (7267.T), which slashed its forecasts last week - even though sales in China virtually halved in September and October amid often violent protests against Japanese goods in a row over islets in the East China Sea.
Due to accounting methods, the full impact of that may not be felt until the current and fourth quarters of Toyota's business year. Toyota has around a 7 percent market share in China, the world's biggest autos market, but is less exposed than rivals to that market. China accounted for about 12 percent of its global sales last year, some way below Nissan's 27 percent and Honda's 20 percent.
Some experts expect Toyota, which provides more conservative forecasts than others, to offset much of the China hit through solid performances elsewhere - in the United States, Asia and in the Middle East.
After a series of crises - from the global financial meltdown and damaging recalls to natural disasters and the China row - Toyota is again making money, but profitability in its core car business is much lower than its financial services unit, which brings in just 5 percent of revenue, but a quarter of operating profit.
Investors and executives want to see real signs that Toyota is fixing its core problem. As the company's president Akio Toyoda puts it: having to make "ever-better cars".
Toyota, which blazed a trail for mass producing quality cars, but then tripped up by expanding too fast into the U.S. muscular SUV and truck market at a time when the yen, too, was rising, has been on a relentless cost-paring binge.
"From the Lehman shock to U.S. congressional hearings (over major 2009 recalls) and the earthquake and Thai floods, we faced many challenges and that has made us stronger," Vice President Mitsuhisa Kato said in August. "We are changing a lot from what we were. We want to prove how we have changed through our products, and we want to ask everyone to wait a little bit more."
GRAPHIC: Share performance r.reuters.com/zyq53t
GRAPHIC: Toyota output: r.reuters.com/qyn43t
One sign of change is Toyota's more controversial designs tested on recent models. For example: the "spindle grille" on some luxury Lexus models - a prominent grille pinched in the middle - gives the car a bolder, more aggressive look.
"We are starting to think about how we can produce cars that stand out, rather than cars that are accepted by everyone but have no unique identity," said Toyota designer Ryo Ikeda.
Another is the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), a new framework to build better cars and cut costs by developing multiple models simultaneously to use more common parts. Shared parts mean suppliers can produce a larger number of fewer parts, cutting the unit price. The framework focuses on three platforms, each carrying 8-10 models, Toyota employees said.
The first car to be fully developed by the TNGA will be the revamped Prius for late-2014 release, followed by the subcompact Vitz and the next generation Camry - the perennial U.S. best-seller - around 2016, analysts said.
As the global market evolves, Toyota is looking to strengthen its foothold in emerging markets, and plans to double its China sales to 1.8 million cars by 2015. It has positioned Southeast Asia as a "second mother-base" after Japan.
Shares in Toyota - worth almost as much as Honda, Nissan and Hyundai Motor (005380.KS) combined - are up by a fifth this year, easily outpacing Honda's 2 percent gain and Nissan's near 3 percent fall.
But the U.S. market remains key to Toyota's recovery.
Toyota and Lexus' U.S. market share jumped to 13.9 percent through October from 12.3 percent a year ago, and the brand is able to sell its mid-sized sedans with relatively low discounting. But experts question whether it can ever regain its 2009 peak share of 16.4 percent, given the increased competition.
"It's tough for Toyota to dominate the market again with its current product line-up. It needs to improve overall product attractiveness, including design and ride quality," said Masatoshi Nishimoto, autos analyst at IHS Automotive in Tokyo.
In the past five years, South Korea's Hyundai and affiliate Kia Motors (000270.KS) have almost doubled their U.S. market share to 8.9 percent, and the Detroit Three - General Motors (GM.N), Ford (F.N) and Chrysler - have increased their combined share to 47 percent from just above 44 percent after the global financial crisis.
"All around the world, automakers were affected by multiple factors in the last four years. They are now all finally standing at the starting line ... The next few years are crucial to see if Toyota can bring its growth back on track again," said Nishimoto.
Additional reporting by Kentaro Sugiyama; Editing by Ian Geoghegan