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Toyota says March US sales rose about 35 %t

Toyota Motor Corp's US sales rose about 35% in March from a year earlier after the automaker offered steep discounts to win back consumers after massive recalls, a US executive said.

Toyota US sales chief Jim Lentz said the company was still reviewing incentive plans for April and had yet to decide whether to extend zero-percent financing and other unprecedented discounts beyond March.

“For a week or so in January, we lost a lot of momentum in the marketplace. We needed to make sure the market and our dealers understood that we were open for business,” Lentz told reporters on the sidelines of a forum sponsored by the National Automobile Dealers Association and IHS Global Insight.

“They (incentives) are a short-term plan. Our intention is not to stay on incentives for a long period of time,” Lentz said.

Toyota, which has traditionally spurned steep discounts to protect resale values, launched in March zero-percent financing for five years on top-selling models, including the Camry, and free maintenance for two years in what it called its “most far-reaching sales program in history.”

“I think our loyal customers are coming back,” Lentz said. “The challenge is going to be attracting the conquest buyers across the road.”

Lentz said Toyota's March results outperformed the overall US auto industry, which is likely to show a seasonally adjusted sales rate of 11.5 million units, up from 9.7 million a year earlier when the industry was near the bottom of its downturn. Toyota sold 132,802 vehicles in March 2009.

Hit by a series of recalls, Toyota's US market share plunged to 13.4% in the first two months of this year, down from nearly 17% for all of 2009. The world's largest automaker has been behind General Motors Co and Ford Motor Co in US sales so far this year.

Toyota has recalled more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide to fix sticky accelerator pedals or ill-fitting floormats that could cause unintended acceleration. More than 5 million of the recalled vehicles were in the United States.

Lentz said about 1.7 million US customers have had their vehicles fixed at dealerships. About 100 of them have complained that the fix did not address unintended acceleration, he said.

US auto safety regulators said on Tuesday they would tap the expertise of the country's top space and aeronautics experts to analyze Toyota's electronic throttles to see if they are behind the reports of unintended acceleration.

“We encourage NASA and the Academy of Science to be involved,” Lentz said. “The more that we can turn this into a discussion about science and facts and not about theories, the better off the entire industry and the public is going to be”. (Reuters)