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Toyota cuts car sales forecasts

TOKYO, August 28  – Toyota Motor Corp. on Thursday slashed its 2009 sales forecast due to slowing demand, putting off its goal of becoming the world\’s first automaker to sell more than 10 million vehicles in a year.

Toyota, vying with General Motors to be the world number one, now aims to sell 9.7 million vehicles in 2009, down from a previous target of 10.4 million. That would mark a 2.1 percent rise compared with the current year.

With sales in Japan, the United States and western Europe expected to stagnate, Toyota is pinning its hopes on fast growing emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China to drive its growth.

But even in those markets the outlook was foggy, said Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe.

"The business environment is rapidly becoming more difficult. Things remain very uncertain, not just in the United States but in emerging countries and resource-rich nations as well," he told a press conference.

"Given the price of gasoline and the economic situation it is quite difficult to imagine a dramatic improvement in the Japanese market."

The automaker has not ruled out cutting its profit forecasts for the current fiscal year to March, he said, adding: "We cannot be optimistic now."

Toyota had already cut its global sales target for 2008 to 9.5 million vehicles from 9.85 million. The figures include sales by subsidiaries Hino Motors Ltd., a truckmaker, and small car specialist Daihatsu Motor Co.

It said the market outlook was too uncertain for it to give a sales forecast for beyond 2009.

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GM holds the all-time record of selling 9.55 million cars and trucks worldwide in 1978.

Toyota sold slightly fewer vehicles than GM last year, but overtook its Detroit-based rival for the six months to June, selling 4.82 million vehicles against GM\’s 4.54 million.

Toyota has enjoyed fast-growing sales and profits in recent years, helped by strong interest in its fuel-sipping hybrids.

But a weakening global economy and soaring commodity costs caused its net profit to fall for a second straight quarter in the three months to June.

Toyota said in July that it would suspend some production lines in the United States for three months as a result of the market downturn.

But it is still in better shape than many of its rivals. GM, which lost 15.5 billion dollars in the second quarter, has shut plants and shed tens of thousands of jobs to try to return to profit.

Watanabe said the downturn could offer an opportunity for Toyota to revamp its operation to make the company more efficient.

"The current phase is very critical for us," he said. "It might be true that the market is contracting for us but we have to prepare for future growth."

Toyota is raising the prices of some passenger cars in Japan for the first time in three decades in response to surging material costs.

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It is a gamble for the Japanese carmaker, whose domestic market is already in a slump, depressed by weak consumer spending and a shrinking population.

Toyota said it had not yet decided whether to raise the prices of other vehicles.

"We must ensure that the market does not shrink as a result of price hikes. Therefore we have decided to limit the number of models that would be affected," Watanabe added.

Toyota Motor shares ended flat at 4,770 yen in the wake of the announcement.

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