* Edmunds, dealers say Toyota US sales surged in March
* Industry-wide sales seen near 12.5 mln sales rate
* U.S. federal regulator weighs 'black box' requirement
By Kevin Krolicki and John Crawley
DETROIT/WASHINGTON, March 11 Unprecedented
discounts after a series of damaging recalls boosted Toyota
Motor Corp's (7203.T) (TM.N) U.S. sales in early March, as U.S.
regulators weighed new auto safety measures.
Toyota's U.S. sales surged by nearly 50 percent in the
first eight days of March compared with the year-ago period due
to zero-percent financing offers and other incentives, industry
tracking service Edmunds.com and dealers said on Thursday.
Edmunds, which analyzes U.S. auto sales trends, also
estimated that Toyota's U.S. retail market share in early March
had jumped to 16.8 percent, up sharply from 12.8 percent a
month earlier when safety problems had sent sales tumbling.
"What they're doing right now is they are picking
low-hanging fruit," said Chester Schriesheim, professor at the
University of Miami School of Business Administration.
"These are the people who are undecided about the brand but
given the lower price, now that provides incentives to go ahead
and purchase," he said. "But they're going to exhaust that pool
of individuals and then they'll find it harder in the longer
term to raise the prices backward."
The early sales estimate comes a week after Toyota launched
the most aggressive discounts in its history to win over U.S.
consumers and recover from an embarrassing slew of product
safety problems that have tarnished its reputation and cut into
sales and financial results.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David
Strickland told a congressional hearing on Thursday that the
regulator is considering whether to make "black boxes"
mandatory for all new vehicles. [ID:nN11246251]
The devices can capture data on speed, braking effort and
other details which can be vital in reconstructing accidents.
Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles globally
to address the risk that accelerator pedals on a range of its
vehicles could become stuck because of a loose floor mat or a
glitch in the pedal assembly.
Unintended acceleration in the company's Toyota and Lexus
vehicles has been linked to at least five U.S. crash deaths
since 2007. Authorities are investigating 47 other Toyota crash
deaths over the past decade.
TOYOTA, GM BOOST MARCH INDUSTRY SALES
Edmunds.com said that industrywide U.S. auto sales are
tracking to hit a rate of 12.5 million vehicles in March
because of the steep discounts on Toyota vehicles and a
competitive campaign launched by General Motors Co [GM.UL].
GM is offering car shoppers rebates of up to $3,000 on
vehicles including the Malibu mid-size sedan, or zero-percent
Toyota, which has traditionally spurned such discount
programs in order to protect resale values, has offered up to
$3,000 in rebates and dealer incentives on a range of vehicles,
including its top-selling Camry, or cut-rate financing.
Both manufacturers are offering steeper discounts on their
competing full-size pickup trucks, GM's Chevy Silverado and GMC
Sierra and the Toyota Tundra.
Edmunds said GM's sales incentives lifted Chevy's retail
market share to 12.9 percent, up from 11.4 percent a month
Several major Toyota dealers said their own sales were
running slightly higher than the Edmunds estimate through
Tuesday. That would mark a sharp reversal from sales declines
in January and February tied to the automaker's recall crisis.
Paul Atkinson, president of the Toyota national dealers'
council and a Toyota dealer in Texas, said he expected that the
March sales boost from incentives would mirror what the
automaker saw during the 2009 "cash for clunkers" program.
Toyota was the big winner from that U.S. government-funded
scrappage program, which offered tax credits of up to $4,500 to
swap out of older and less fuel-efficient vehicles.
Toyota had a 19.4 percent share of vehicles sold under the
"clunkers" program which ran from late July through the third
week of August 2009. Toyota's share was the highest in the
"I truly believe that March could rival cash for clunkers,"
Sales at his own dealership in early March were running at
three times the level of January and February, he said.
Customers shopping for the bargains do not appear concerned by
Toyota's recalls, he said.
"Honestly, I think the public has had enough," he said.
Just this week, as Toyota sought to shift attention away
from the safety problems, at least three U.S. drivers reported
new cases of driving Prius or Lexus vehicles that appeared to
surge out of control.
Atkinson has encouraged Toyota dealers to protest GM's
incentives in March, saying they amounted to a taxpayer-funded
program of discounts because the U.S. government funded GM's
restructuring in bankruptcy with $50 billion in aid.
"We just want a level playing field," he told Reuters.
"These GM incentives are kind of like using tax dollars to
encourage my fellow citizens to not do business with me."
GM has defended its use of incentives, saying such
discounts are a well-established part of the way cars are sold
in the U.S. market.
(Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim in Detroit, Editing by
Gerald E. McCormick, Tim Dobbyn and Matthew Lewis)