LOS ANGELES -- Even for a brand as rock-solid as Toyota, pulling out of the company's safety recall crisis is proving to be a long and painful process.
Toyota has held on to loyal customers throughout the crisis, and the brand's conquest rates have in recent months returned to pre-recall levels. But to keep selling cars, dealers are having to accept lower gross profits.
According to TrueCar and Edmunds.com, Toyota's transaction prices on new 2011 models are the lowest, as a percentage of sticker prices, of all mainstream brands.
Some of the discounting has been covered by higher factory incentives, but Toyota is still spending much less on spiffs than other brands. That means dealers are having to dig further into their own pockets to move the metal.
"We're seeing it; the pressure is definitely on the bottom line, the gross line," said Jack Wilson, president of Toyota of Vallejo, north of San Francisco. "I see no reason other than we're still recovering from the recall situation. It's a factor, and we can't sit and not talk about it."
Ford, Chevrolet, Nissan, Hyundai and Dodge all posted double-digit percentage sales gains through September, while Toyota brand sales rose 1 percent.
Jesse Toprak, TrueCar vice president of industry trends and insights, said Toyota's transaction prices traditionally start the model year much stronger. Every Toyota brand model is seeing weak dealer gross margins, he said.
Lexus discounting also has increased, although not as much as the Toyota brand.
"The most worrying thing is if [Toyota dealers] are already offering the highest discounts in mid-October, where is Toyota going to be in February or the middle of next year?" Toprak said. "The trend trajectory is not looking great for their pricing."
Not that Toyota is the only brand doing lots of discounting.
In blowing out its remaining 2010 models, Ford Motor Co.'s three brands have had the largest percentage gap between sticker and transaction price in the industry. Ford brands accounted for nine of the top 10 most discounted vehicles for the 2010 model year, according to TrueCar.
Ford's average discount from sticker on 2010 models sold Sept. 1-Oct. 8 is 14.7 percent, Lincoln's was 12.3 percent, and Mercury's was 11.5 percent.
Toyota executives say the brand's conquest rates are back to what they were before the crisis. Dealer Wilson said retaining loyal Toyota customers has not proved to be difficult. But convincing potential conquests from other brands has meant digging deeper into the incentive pot to convert a sale.