Toyota kicks off year with sharply increased fleet sales

Toyota can attribute much of its uptick in sales last month to fleets. While the automaker saw its sales leap by 7.5 percent compared to a year earlier, reports Toyota sold 47 percent more cars and trucks to fleet customers in the U.S. than in January 2011. Without the fleet sales, the improvement would have been less than one percent. All told, rental companies accounted for 93 percent of the automaker's fleet sales in January, with the remainder going to other organizations.

Toyota and other Japanese automakers have always been reticent to embrace fleet sales. Doing so is not only generally less profitable than individual consumer sales, but can also lead to degraded brand image and resale value. Last month, Ford was cited for having 45 percent of the company's Focus going toward fleets.

Toyota, meanwhile, says the news isn't the start of a trend. When Toyota factories were hobbled by earthquake and tsunami activity in Japan last year, the automaker put a stop to fleet sales altogether to keep its dealerships fed. According to Bob Carter, Toyota U.S. sales chief, the company promised to make up deliveries to its fleet customers, and January represents the automaker fulfilling that promise. Carter also said that while fleet sales will be high once again in February, things should return to normal once again in March.

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