TOKYO -- Toyota Motor Corp., whose runaway success has fanned talk of a political backlash in the United States, took pains on Monday to highlight its focus on environmental and safety issues in the years ahead.
"Our main mission as a company is to contribute to a better society," President Katsuaki Watanabe, who took up his post last week, told a news conference on Monday held to introduce the company's new management team.
"We need to do much more in this field than we have been."
Watanabe's comments come at a time when Toyota and other Asian automakers are luring customers away from General Motors and Ford Motor Co., helping drive the top Japanese car brand towards its goal of selling a record 8.03 million vehicles worldwide this year, up 7 percent from 2004.
The Detroit giants' troubles -- stemming in part from massive employee health-care costs -- have aroused worries in some quarters about possible political fallout, to the point that Toyota Chairman Hiroshi Okuda suggested recently that price hikes might be needed to give GM and Ford room to "catch their breath."
Last month, U.S. sales at the world's second-biggest auto maker grew 7.8 percent, giving it 13.4 percent of the market -- less than one percentage point shy of Chrysler's 14.3 percent. GM's sales, meanwhile, fell 5.5 percent and Ford's were down 3.0 percent.
As Toyota profits from rising sales in the United States and other overseas markets, Watanabe said its second task was to ensure it was contributing to each country's social needs, such as by offering employment through increased local production.
He noted that so far this year, Toyota had kicked off a joint venture car assembly plant in the Czech Republic, a diesel engine plant in Poland and a new car factory in China.
"As far as the U.S. business goes, what we need to do is offer the kind of products that customers want and boost local production and procurement," he said.
In addition to a sixth North American car plant due to start up in Texas next year, Watanabe said an announcement on a seventh site in Canada was imminent.
"We're hoping to make an announcement shortly,"he said.
Media have reported that Toyota would make an announcement on the plant, expected to be located in Ontario, on Thursday.
Toyota has enjoyed robust sales growth in the United States thanks to the popularity of its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid car and other fuel-efficient models such as the Camry sedan.
Tokuichi Uranishi, the new executive vice president in charge of overseas operations, told reporters later he expected sales of the fuel-sipping Prius to pick up also in Europe, reaching 25,000 to 30,000 units this year against an official target of 20,000.
But Toyota also sells gas-guzzling vehicles such as big SUVs and pickup trucks, and said in an annual report filed with U.S. regulators on Friday that tougher U.S. fuel economy standards could hurt its bottom line.
Asked to comment on the apparent contradiction between Toyota's drive to offer "green" vehicles and the addition of less fuel-efficient products, Watanabe said only that the automaker was developing cleaner versions of conventional gasoline engines.