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Toyota uncertain what 2019 will bring for US sales

The CEO of Toyota Motor Corp. North America said U.S. sales for 2018 were stronger than expected, but it is unclear what 2019 will hold, depending on certain headwinds.

The division's CEO Jim Lentz said Toyota had forecast that U.S. auto sales would be approximately 16.6 million vehicles sold industrywide, but 2018 saw 17 million vehicles sold.

"It makes me question my forecast for [2019] a little bit because I don't quite understand what happened last year," Lentz said during the Automotive News World Congress on Jan. 15 in Detroit.

Lentz said the forecast for 2019 is 16.6 million to 16.8 million vehicles sold industrywide, similar to 2018's forecast.

"We all expected interest rates to take a bigger bite" in 2018, Lentz said.

The CEO said headwinds might be more intense in 2019.

"We have rising costs," Lentz said. "Primarily, today, tariffs are a big part of that."

Although steel and aluminum tariffs have "settled down a bit from the initial 40% increase, it's still 15%-30% depending on the grade of steel," Lentz said, referring to the tariffs President Donald Trump imposed on imports of steel and aluminum in 2018.

As the auto industry changes, consumer preferences are also leaning toward trucks and SUVs, and Lentz said there might never be a comeback for sedans.

"Even if fuel prices start to ratchet up, I really don't see big shifts away from bigger vehicles," Lentz said. "People will just buy more fuel-efficient SUVs."

Lentz said the miles-per-gallon rate for the Toyota Camry and RAV4 are comparable, so consumers do not necessarily need smaller cars to get fuel efficiency.