Toyota Motor Corp. is revamping the Highlander sport-utility vehicle, turning the car-based crossover into a more wagon-like model as the automaker seeks to keep its U.S. sales rising for a third consecutive year.
The third-generation Highlander, unveiled recently, is lower, longer and wider than the model it replaces early next year, the company said. The three-row vehicle will be able to carry as many as eight people and comes with a four- or six-cylinder gasoline engine or a V-6 hybrid, Toyota said.
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The redesign gives the 2014 Highlander a "sleek and strong appearance" and a new six-speed transmission aids performance and fuel efficiency, said Bill Fay, group vice president of U.S. sales for the Toyota City, Japan-based company. Interior enhancements include stitched seats and a soft-touch dashboard.
Toyota, the world's largest automaker, expects U.S. auto demand to reach 15.3 million cars and light trucks this year, about 5.5 percent more than in 2012. While the company plans to lead car sales for a 12th consecutive year with its Camry sedan, the current Highlander trails competing mid-size car-based crossovers including Ford Motor Co.'s Explorer and Edge models, and General Motors Co.'s Equinox.
The new Highlander design is less conservative than past versions, said Alec Gutierrez, senior industry analyst for Kelley Blue Book. Even so, "the new redesign should help them to maintain their spot in the segment, but not enough to increase market share," he said.
The company didn't immediately provide pricing for the new Highlander, which will be built solely at its Princeton, Indiana, plant. Sales of the model this year through February rose 21 percent to 18,141.
Deliveries may reach 125,000 this year, Jim Lentz, head of Toyota's U.S. sales unit in Torrance, California, said in an interview yesterday. That's just a 3.3 percent increase from 2012. Highlander sales should expand to 135,000 in 2014, with a full year of availability for the new version, said Lentz.
By comparison, Ford boosted Explorer sales 60 percent to 32,598 and Edge sales rose 2.4 percent to 19,297, according to Autodata Corp. Equinox deliveries increased 20 percent through February to 37,872.
Lentz, who on April 1 became Toyota's first American executive to lead all North American operations, also said yesterday at a Bank of America Corp. auto conference that the Camry sedan will remain the best-selling U.S. car this year.
"We plan on selling over 400,000," he said on a webcast of the conference. That total will keep Camry "the No. 1 selling car in America for the 12th consecutive year," he said.
Toyota also expects U.S. sales of Prius hybrid models to reach "about a quarter million" vehicles this year, Lentz said in a second interview. Sales at that level would be a record for the world's best-selling hybrid line, and 5.6 percent more than in 2012.
Toyota's shares fell 0.6 percent to 4,870 yen as of 9:27 a.m. in Tokyo trading. They have gained 22 percent this year.