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Toyota put on the defensive in the US

Toyota Motors has gone on the defensive against a potential political backlash in North America.

Toyota and other Asian carmakers are luring customers away from companies like General Motors and Ford in the States. In response Toyota is highlighting its positive impact on society.

"Our main mission as a company is to contribute to a better society," says Toyota president, Katsuaki Watanabe, who took up his post last week, at a news conference today held to introduce the company's new management team.

"We need to do much more in this field than we have been."

GMs troubles stemming from employee healthcare costs have raised fears in some quarters about possible political fallout, to the point that Toyota chairman Hiroshi Okuda suggested recently that price hikes might be needed to give GM and Ford room to "catch their breath".

As Toyota profits from rising sales in the United States and other overseas markets, Watanabe said its second task was to ensure it was contributing to each country's social needs, such as offering employment through increased local production.

He noted that so far this year, Toyota had kicked off a joint venture car assembly plant in the Czech Republic, a diesel engine plant in Poland and a new car factory in China.

"As far as the US business goes, what we need to do is offer the kind of products that customers want and boost local production and procurement," says Wantanabe.

In addition to a sixth North American car plant due to start up in Texas next year, Watanabe said a seventh site in Canada was imminent.

"We're hoping to make an announcement shortly," he said.

An announcement on the new plant in Ontario, Canada is excepted on Thursday.

Toyota has enjoyed large sales in the US thanks to the popularity of its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid car and other fuel-efficient models such as the Camry sedan.

Tokuichi Uranishi, the new executive vice president in charge of overseas operations, told reporters later he expected sales of the Prius to pick up in Europe, reaching 25,000 to 30,000 units this year against an official target of 20,000.

But Toyota also sells gas-guzzling vehicles such as big sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks, and said in an annual report filed with US regulators on Friday that tougher US fuel economy standards could hurt its bottom line.

Asked to comment on the apparent contradiction between Toyota's drive to offer "green" vehicles and the addition of less fuel-efficient products, Watanabe said only that the it was developing cleaner versions of conventional gasoline engines.

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