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Toyota hopes 0% financing will lure customers

by Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Toyota's U.S. arm is again looking to 0% financing to pull it out of a sales slump.

The last time Toyota rolled out a nationwide incentive plan like this was in late 2008, as the entire U.S. auto industry was getting crushed by tight credit and a collapsing economy.

Buyers can get 0% on a Rav4 through April 5.
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This time, it's Toyota's own missteps that have caused the crisis. With its public image dented by massive high-profile recalls, the Japanese automaker's sales were down 9% last month compared to a year ago, even as Ford sales were up 43% and General Motors were up 12%.

The Japanese automaker estimates it lost about 18,000 sales last month due to the recalls, said Bob Carter, group vice president of Toyota Motor Sales, USA's Toyota division.

Toyota called the incentive program, which begins immediately and runs though April 5, "the company's most far-reaching sales program in its history," in a corporate announcement.

Toyota is offering 0% financing for as long 60 months on eight of the automakers' most popular models. They are the Avalon full-size car, Camry mid-size car, Corolla and Matrix compact cars, Yaris subcompact, Highlander and Rav4 crossover SUVs, and the Tundra truck.

Taken together, Carter said, these vehicles account for about 80% of Toyota's sales in the United States.

As an alternative, customers are also being offered low-payment lease deals on these models. For example, customers could lease a Corolla for $179 a month, a Camry for $199 a month or a Prius for $239. Lease offers will vary by region, a Toyota Motor Credit spokesman said.

Zero-percent financing is available for customers with at least a "good" credit rating, Toyota Motor Credit spokesman Justin Leach said, but their credit doesn't necessarily have to be spotless.

"We evaluate every deal on a number of factors beyond just the credit score," he said.

Customers who already own a Toyota product are also being offered free scheduled maintenance for two years or 24,000 miles.

A print and TV marketing campaign featuring actual recent Toyota buyers, most of them repeat customers, was being rolled out beginning Tuesday night to let people know about the incentive deals, Carter said.

Toyota typically focuses its incentives on reduced interest rates rather than cash incentives, said Jesse Toprak,, an analyst for the auto pricing Web site Truecar.com. That's because cash incentives tend to damage a car's resale value, something that's traditionally been a strong point for Toyota.

What's striking, Toprak said, is the scope of this offering. Other automakers often announce big incentive plans, while Toyota rarely announces a nationwide program like this.

"It's not that what what Toyota's offering is unusual," he said. "It's just that it's unusual for them."

General Motors, for instance, announced its own incentive plan for March at about the same time as Toyota. GM is offering 0% financing on many of its most popular models including the Chevrolet Malibu, Impala and Cobalt cars.

Chrysler Group also announced its own incentive plan featuring 0% financing offers on most Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models.

Low interest rate financing plans makes sense now, Toprak said, because customers are more focused on their personal bottom line and anything that reduces a monthly payment will be attractive.

"Right now, customers are much more concerned wit monthly cash flow issues," he said. To top of page

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