WASHINGTON - Top Toyota executive Jim Press says U.S. vehicle sales of 20 million a year are just around the corner, but he warns that import-brand automakers and dealers need to guard against protectionism to win their share.
The remarks by Press, executive vice president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., were delivered at a gathering of the American International Automobile Dealers Association. They are significant for a couple of reasons.
The warning about a return of protectionism causes some head scratching outside of import-brand automotive circles.
And his sales projection reflects optimism not generally apparent among leaders of an industry that is beset by cutthroat price competition, worldwide overcapacity and struggling national economies, not only in North America but also in Europe and Asia.
"The auto industry is on the verge of a new golden age," Press said at AIADA's Automotive Congress on Wednesday, May 21. He did not specify when the first 20-million year would occur. But he cited these reasons for his view:
U.S. sales peaked at 17.4 million in 2000. Heavy industrywide incentives are keeping this year's rate close to 16.5 million.
In a separate interview, Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said he expects sales to rise above 17 million again in the near future, but he is reluctant to project further. He said a 20-million year is "within the realm of possibility" at some point.
Toyota's record of delivering on its own growth projections adds credibility to Press' forecast.
But his warning about "alarming signs of a new protectionism movement" is noteworthy in a different way. While clearly meant as rally-the-troops rhetoric for the dealers who had gathered for a day of lobbying Congress, it also struck some in the industry as disconnected from reality.
Charles Uthus, vice president of the Automotive Trade Policy Council, which represents the Big 3 on trade issues, said he didn't hear Press and didn't want to respond directly. But he said, "There is nothing we have done that could be construed by anyone as protectionism."
Press said AIADA should convey the message that import brands are the only growing part of the industry in the United States, and it would be wrong and self-defeating to create barriers to their growth.
He did not specify whom he blames for trying to impede the import-brand automakers and dealers. After the meeting, two Toyota spokesmen declined to name names. But the obvious targets are the UAW and the Big 3.
Said Press: "Our fabulous growth is not welcome news to everyone."