Toyota is claiming to be Australia’s top car exporter, leading the country’s four vehicle makers, The Australian newspaper reported on its web site.

The report said Toyota on Friday said it had shipped 49,300 cars worth an estimated $A1.1 billion overseas last year, a result second only to the 59,200 it exported in 2001.

According to The Australian, Toyota explained the decline was due to the run-out of the previous model Camry during the year and a two-week shutdown at the Altona manufacturing facility in Melbourne during the changeover to the new model.

The report said that, although they are yet to release final figures, Holden is believed to have exported about 30,000 cars last year and Mitsubishi about 25,000.

Ford said it exported just over 6400, the report added.

The Australian said the bulk of Toyota's exports went to the Middle East, also a major destination for the Holden Commodore and a growing market for the Mitsubishi Magna, while the USA was expected to remain Mitsubishi's biggest customer when its figures are confirmed.

The Australian said the US should also become a major buyer for Holden cars this year, with exports of the Pontiac GTO-badged Monaro starting in the final quarter.

With 18,000 of the cars ordered by General Motors each year, Holden's exports are expected to grow to 50,000 vehicles in 2004 and then to 70,000 within the next six years, The Australian added.

However, the report noted, Toyota said it had also forecast record exports this year with more than 60,000 Australian-built Camrys headed for various destinations.

Toyota Australia President Ken Asano told The Australian that the export success of local car manufacturers highlighted the significance of Australia's automotive industry to the national economy.

"Australia's car industry is now competing on a global scale for access to investment capital and international markets," he reportedly said. "Local component manufacturers are providing outstanding support by becoming globally competitive, particularly in medium-volume production and increasing export opportunities."

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