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Toyota might cut U.S. sales goal

TOKYO — Toyota might scale back its target of selling more vehicles in the United States this year than it did in 2007, as damage from an economic slowdown and soaring oil prices becomes more fully known.

Surpassing the 2.62 million vehicles the company sold last year in the United States, its biggest market, would be difficult, Executive Vice President Tokuichi Uranishi told a shareholders meeting Tuesday, said Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco.

The world's No. 2 automaker announced in December that it was hoping to sell 2.64 million vehicles in the United States in 2008 and predicted a 5 percent jump in global sales to 9.85 million vehicles because of strong sales in emerging markets such as China and Russia.

Toyota Motor Corp. will review its sales targets in July, as it does every year.

Through the first half of June, total auto U.S. sales were running at an annual rate of 12.5 million vehicles, J.D. Power & Associates said. It was the lowest level for June in decades and a drop from the year-earlier rate of 16.3 million.

Uranishi projected that total U.S. auto sales could slip under 15 million vehicles this year, Nolasco said.

Last week, Ford Motor Co. said industrywide sales could drop as low as 14.4 million for the year, which would be the lowest level in 13 years, said Ward's AutoInfoBank.

With buyers fleeing to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, demand has soared for Toyota's gas-electric hybrid models. Still, their popularity has been unable to fully insulate the Japanese carmaker from a drop-off in sales of larger vehicles.

Toyota announced recently a slowdown in large pickup and SUV production at plants in Texas and Indiana.

But the shift in consumer preference has hit Toyota's U.S. rivals especially hard.

General Motors Corp. said Monday that it would further cut SUV and pickup production, on top of its announcement earlier this month that it will close four North American plants by 2010.

It also plans to offer zero-interest financing to clear out inventories of some 2008 pickup and SUV models.

Ford announced cuts Friday at seven pickup and SUV factories for the rest of the year, including cuts at both its Louisville assembly plants.

It now plans to produce 475,000 vehicles during the third quarter, 25 percent fewer than in the same period last year.

Toyota shares fell 1.51 percent to 5,230 yen ($48.63) Tuesday, compared with a 0.6 percent drop in the Nikkei 225 Stock Average.

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