NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Lexus dealers begging for more inventory have gotten the ear of Toyota sales managers.
But the automaker, pressed for production capacity in North America, still is not sure exactly how it can shift Lexus production here from Japan, said Yale Gieszl, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
'I expect that at some time in the future there will be U.S. production of Lexus vehicles,' he said. 'The timing of that isn't clear. That's a high priority of our Lexus dealers, and something that we're listening to very carefully.'
Gieszl, speaking at the Automotive News Southeast Conference last week, said Toyota is focused on expanding its North American production rather than increasing imports.
For example, Gieszl said, the company is building a $1.2 billion truck plant in Princeton, Ind.; investing $700 million in an engine plant in Buffalo, W. Va.; and putting on an $80 million expansion at its wholly owned aluminum casting supplier, Bodine Aluminum of St. Louis.
Last year, the company sold 1.13 million vehicles in the United States and built 838,000 vehicles at its plants in the United States and Canada, Gieszl said. By 2000, Toyota expects annual sales volume to grow to 1.5 million vehicles.
'Toyota is aggressive,' Gieszl said. 'We make no apologies for that. Our goal is to be the most successful and respected car company in America.'
The problem for Lexus is that Toyota assembly plants here are already busy building high-volume vehicles such as the Corolla, Camry and Tacoma small pickup. The top Lexus model in the United States, the ES 300, had sales of fewer than 60,000 units last year.
Gieszl said Lexus production in the United States likely would be a niche operation, but one that could tailor the vehicle to local tastes. Toyota does much the same thing with the U.S.-built Camry. Many consumers do not want a one-size-fits-all world car, he said.
In 1997, Lexus sales increased 19.7 percent to 97,585. The division is forecasting another big gain in sales this year, to 120,000 vehicles. Most of the increase is expected to come from the new RX 300 luxury sport-utility.
As of April 1, Lexus dealers had a 10-day supply of vehicles.
Gieszl also said he was bullish on the North American car market, where low interest rates, cheap gas and a strong economy are expected to keep sales steady.
Said Gieszl: 'Listen, if we can't sell cars in a market like this, we'd better be in some other business.'