No change from Prius, Toyota officials say

An executive had said the plant might produce something else.
By Dennis Seid
Daily Journal
Prius it is, at least for now.
Toyota Motor Co. officials and state officials quickly distanced themselves from comments made Wednesday by another Toyota executive who said the Blue Springs plant could build a vehicle other than the Prius.
In a Bloomberg report, Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz said “it’s conceivable that something else could go potentially in there. It was originally designed for Highlander, then switched to Prius. That decision can still be moved around.”
Lentz made the comments while in Washington to meet with the Obama administration’s auto industry task force.
But his speculation drew a quick response Thursday morning from Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, which is overseeing construction of the plant.
“There are no plans to make any vehicle change for Mississippi at this time,” said spokeswoman Barbara McDaniel. “As for any future decisions, Toyota always considers stability for its plants locally and viability for the company globally.”
In December, Toyota announced an indefinite delay in the opening of the Toyota Mississippi plant, which was to produce the Prius hybrid starting in late 2010. A severe economic downturn has pummeled the auto industry, and Toyota said it would wait until economic conditions improve before making a decision.
Toyota, which announced it had sold it’s 1 millionth hybrid vehicle in the U.S. on Thursday, saw its U.S. sales fall nearly 40 percent in February from the same month in 2008. Sales of the Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid, dropped 33.6 percent for the month.
The company is launching its third-generation Prius later this year, and said at the North American International Auto Show in January that it hoped to sell 400,000 Prius starting in 2010.
Toyota officials have said several times that opening the Blue Springs plant was a matter of “when, not if,” and state leaders on Thursday said they haven’t heard any new plans.
Gov. Haley Barbour said in a statement “we’ve not been advised of any change in the Toyota model to be produced at Blue Springs. We know Toyota continues to keep a close eye on the market. We’ll keep working together on behalf of the state and company’s best interest.”
The Mississippi Development Authority also issued a similar statement and said “we continue to work with the company and are looking forward to the time when the plant is producing.”
Randy Kelley, executive director of Three Rivers Planning and Development District, said he, too, is looking ahead to Toyota Mississippi’s opening.
“It really doesn’t matter to me what vehicle they produce. It could be a Toyota named Goat and I’d be happy,” he said with a laugh. “We have to remember that Toyota is keeping its local financial commitment, and there also are clawback provisions. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll open. It’s just a matter of time.
“You can’t build cars if people aren’t buying them.”
Toyota has invested about $300 million in the $1.3 billion facility, which is nearly complete. About 100 employees work at the plant, but no equipment has been ordered or installed.
Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or dennis.seid@djournal.com.

 

Dennis Seid