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Toyota on Top of the World

Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) shareholders, rejoice. The stock set a new 52-week high today, and it's nearing the all-time high it set in 2000. Shares have risen on the company's recently announced plans to boost 2006 production by 10% -- the same percentage increase it expects to report in 2005. With GM (NYSE: GM  ) and Ford (NYSE: F  ) cutting domestic production, Toyota's ambitions indicate that the company has the pedal to the metal.

But before you speed off to buy shares, take a closer look at its numbers. Toyota expects its namesake brand to report a 2% decrease in Japanese sales for the current fiscal year. It appears that lower-priced competition and a lack of new models are taking their toll in its home market.

With the recent introduction of the new compact Belta and the 2006 releases of the fourth-generation Lexus LS and sixth-generation Camry, the downturn should be a short one. Still, the company expects to see only a 3% sales increase in 2006. If anything, these numbers reflect the hard reality of fierce competition in the automobile market.

Toyota is a technology leader, though -- the first company to mass-produce a gas/electric hybrid vehicle. It's already sold more than 500,000 hybrid Priuses, and the technology is a crucial part of its plans to address future environmental issues and fuel economy. Toyota introduced its second-generation hybrid in 2003, before GM and Ford could even introduce their first-generation models.

Toyota's results only confirm that the company is a class act. Its trailing annual operating margin is 8.3%. Only Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , at 7%, comes close to that level among the majors. DaimlerChrysler is a distant third at 2%.

Analysts expect Toyota to produce only 5% annual earnings growth over the next five years, yet the stock sells for 16.7 times trailing earnings. However, I believe Toyota deserves a premium to its peers, given its profitably and its growing size. It may become the world's largest car manufacturer in 2006. In a very capital-intensive industry, it has the resources to expand and innovate.

Nonetheless, potential Toyota investors should consider the risk of an economic recession. True, Toyota's stock has just crested the $100 mark, but the same shares were fetching $41.17 as recently as April 2003. Toyota's got a lot going for it, but with only 5% annual earnings growth ahead, the stock's hardly a bargain by my standards.

Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own any shares in the companies mentioned. Clickhereto see The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.

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