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Toyota gives first forecast for shrinking sales in at least 15 years

Members of the media are shown under a large Toyota logo during the first press preview day of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, January 12, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

By Chang-Ran Kim

TOKYO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp projected a drop in vehicle sales for the year ahead, its first such bearish forecast in at least 15 years, as flagging demand in Japan, Indonesia and other key markets raises the chance that Volkswagen will steal the industry crown.

The forecast underscores Chief Executive Akio Toyoda's resolve to steer the company through measured, profitable growth rather than chase volumes after getting burned by a capacity glut in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Toyota said on Wednesday it expects 2015 global vehicle sales, including those of subsidiaries Daihatsu Motor Co and Hino Motors Ltd, to slip 1 percent to 10.15 million vehicles.

The world's biggest automaker has not forecast a drop in annual vehicle sales since at least 2000, a spokeswoman said. That excludes a mid-year revision in 2011, when natural disasters temporarily halted production. Toyota did not provide initial forecasts for 2009 amid uncertainty during the financial crisis.

CEO Toyoda has declared a three-year freeze on building new factories through the financial year to March 2016 to focus on becoming leaner and more profitable, even as Toyota took the top sales spot back from General Motors in 2012.

Toyota expects growth in China, the world's biggest auto market, to halve this year after sales fell short of its target in 2014 on the back of a slowing economy and political tensions between Beijing and Tokyo.

In contrast, China, the world's biggest car market, helped rival Volkswagen clock in growth of 4.2 percent to 10.14 million vehicles last year. The group's aggressive expansion plans could see it reach a goal of overtaking Toyota this year, ahead of its self-imposed deadline of 2018.

Toyota expects its parent-only sales to rise 0.4 percent to 9.18 million vehicles, with a 7 percent fall to 1.45 million in Japan, where a sales tax hike last year has hit demand. It expects overseas sales to rise 2 percent to 7.73 million vehicles, thanks to a healthy U.S. market.

In 2014, group-wide sales grew 3 percent to 10.231 million vehicles.

Toyota's sales in Indonesia, Southeast Asia's biggest economy, fell 11 percent last year. The Indonesian automobile market is expected to remain weak in 2015 after the reduction of fuel subsidies.

Toyota forecast its sales in Thailand will rise 0.9 percent to 330,000 vehicles in 2015 led by an increase in commercial vehicle sales. Its Thai auto sales shrank 27 percent in 2014 as domestic political unrest impacted consumer buying decisions.

(Additional reporting by Viparat Jantraprap in BANGKOK; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Muralikumar Anantharaman)