Toyota switching gears

In reaction to growing concerns over high fuel costs and a subsequent decline in SUV and truck sales, Toyota has announced its newest North American plant – being built near Blue Springs – will be the first production site in the United States of its Prius hybrid sedan.

The Prius, which will be the company’s second hybrid vehicle built in the US, will take the place of Highlander as the Mississippi plant’s featured vehicle, Toyota officials also announced that the Highlander will be manufactured at its Princeton, Ind. site in the fall of 2009 and that its Tundra full-size pick-up truck will be built strictly in San Antonio, Texas beginning next spring.

Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America Vice President Jim Wiseman said that the reason for restructuring was a response to changing consumer demand and improvement in production efficiency.

“The truck market continues to worsen, so unfortunately we must temporarily suspend production. But this good news about production mix demonstrates our long-term commitment to our North American operations and to our team members, supplier partners, and communities where our plants are located,” said Jim Wiseman, vice president/external affairs for Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America (TEMA). “By using this downturn as an opportunity to develop team members and improve our operations, we hope to emerge even stronger.”

Because of the decision to build the Prius hybrid at the Blue Springs site, instead of the Highlander, the plant production will be delayed until the fall of 2010. When the plant’s construction was first announced in 2007, it was originally scheduled to open in January of 2010.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said the change from the Highlander to the Prius will be a good one.

“It is exciting news that Toyota has decided to begin manufacturing the Prius hybrid sedan in the U.S., and Mississippi is proud to have been chosen as the location of this important new venture,” Barbour said in a statement released Thursday morning. “The Prius is the leading hybrid car in the world and the environmental car of the future; it is appropriate it will be built at Toyota’s model environmentally-sustainable plant in Blue Springs.”

“While the decision to manufacture the Prius in Mississippi means a delay in opening the plant from spring to fall 2010, it’s worth the wait. Mississippi thinks long term and in the long term this is a grand slam home run,” Barbour continued.

Union County Development Association Executive Director Stephen Surles said he also believes the decision will be good for the county and possibly mean more opportunities.

“I think it’s very positive,” Surles said. “Where I’m looking at it is that there has been a shift in consumer demand from trucks and SUV’s to smaller economy cars because of the high cost of fuel. And I think it’s going to be long term shift.”

Surles said, in terms of the auto suppliers who will work with the plant, the decision helps Union County and the Northeast Mississippi region as well.

“There’s not a supplier base for some of these parts, because the Prius isn’t currently built in North America,” Surles said. “So my gut reaction is that there will be more opportunities for us to build an infrastructure for the construction of the vehicle.”

Toyota also announced Thursday that it will temporarily suspend Tundra and Sequoia production beginning August 8 and it will resume in early November. Officials said, however, that employees at those sites, including the Huntsville, Ala. plant that builds Tundra and Sequoia engines, will continue to be provided work.