Toyota loses ground as Easter holiday dents showroom traffic

Toyota Motor Corp.’s March new-vehicle sales in the U.S. fell 2.7 percent from last year as car sales continued to slump and an early Easter contributed to dampened retail volume.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. reported March sales of 219,842 in March, down from 225,959 a year ago. Toyota brand sales fell 2.7 percent to 189,644, while Lexus deliveries fell 2.8 percent to 30,198.

Toyota’s results, which came in well below the 6.5 percent increase analysts had anticipated, were hampered by weak Toyota, Scion and Lexus car demand, which slipped 11 percent to 108,533. Car volume was off 11 percent at the Toyota brand, while Lexus car sales dropped 14 percent.

Car sales, which have traditionally fueled Toyota’s volume, continue to decline industrywide as cheap gas prices and a healthy economy fuel strong demand for crossovers, SUVs and pickups. Toyota Motor’s truck and SUV sales rose 7.4 percent to 111,309, as both the Toyota and Lexus brands set March light-truck records.

Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president, said the company will adjust production to catch up with soaring light-truck demand.

“We’re trying to get as much RAV4, Highlander and light truck production as we possibly can,” Fay said during a conference call today. “… We really haven’t cut any Camry or Corolla production, but we’re trying to move around the mix a bit.”

Fay and Jeff Bracken, Lexus division group vice president, said the last 10 days of March were weaker than they had anticipated in large part because of an early Easter holiday, when showroom traffic typically falls.

Most of the company’s dealerships closed on the holiday, which fell on March 27 this year, they said.

“To see the volume off, albeit slightly, certainly was not our plan,” Bracken said. “But, nevertheless, we certainly are not feeling this is any kind of sustainable issue.”

Fay said that although consumers were “more cautious about spending” in March, Toyota remains “optimistic” about 2016 sales due to the stability of the U.S. economy.

Bob Carter, senior vice president for automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said on Thursday he expects U.S. auto sales to plateau over the next two years. Toyota Motor’s U.S. sales have slipped 1.1 percent to 569,079 cars and light trucks this year through March.

Sales of the Toyota Camry, the automaker’s best-selling vehicle, fell 9.3 percent in March from a year earlier to 36,991. Corolla volume was off 8.4 percent to 32,556, while sales of the Prius, fresh off a redesign, dropped 25 percent to 12,075.

U.S. sales of the RAV4 jumped 15 percent to 29,045, a March record, while the Highlander and 4Runner also posted double-digit gains. Tacoma pickup sales rose 11 percent on the month to 17,687 while Tundra pickup deliveries fell 13 percent to 10,002.

Lexus light-truck sales climbed 9.5 percent for the month on the strength of the NX and RX, while the luxury brand’s car sales fell 14 percent. Sales of the ES sedan were flat, while every other mass-produced Lexus car posted a decline.

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