More Prius reports, more denials

The Toyota plant in Blue Springs has been the subject of much speculation since the automaker announced a delay in production there:
* Dec. 15 – Toyota announces it is delaying production of the Prius in Blue Springs, originally scheduled for late 2010, until economic conditions improve.
* March 12 – Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz tells Bloomberg News that it’s “conceivable that something else could go potentially” at the plant.
* June 5 – Toyota Motor Corp. Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada, who is in charge of production, says he is “extremely unhappy with the situation,” referring to the delay at Blue Springs.
* June 9 – Automotive News reports that Toyota is thinking about building a different vehicle at Blue Springs.

For the second time in a week, Toyota Motor Co. officials have dismissed reports that the automaker will not be building the Prius in Blue Springs.
Late Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that sources “familiar with the plan” said Toyota is contemplating building the hybrid vehicle at a California production plant it shares with General Motors.
“With all the uncertainty in the auto industry, I think we can all expect these speculative and ‘what if’ stories to continue,” said Barbara McDaniel, a spokeswoman for Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America, or TEMA.
McDaniel said Wednesday, as she did last week, that Toyota plans to build the Prius in Mississippi when the automobile market recovers.
In the Bloomberg story, Jim Wiseman, TEMA’s vice president of external affairs, said he was unaware of any talks within Toyota to build Prius in California and that Blue Springs is still scheduled to build the vehicle.
Toyota announced in February 2007 that it would build a plant in Blue Springs to produce the Highlander SUV, starting in 2009 or 2010. Things shifted last summer when the company said the hybrid Prius, not the Highlander, would roll off the lines.
But as the overall automotive industry slumped, Toyota announced in December the plant’s opening would be delayed indefinitely. The company also is holding back capital investment after having posted a record loss last year.
Haig Stoddard, an automotive analyst for IHS Global Insight, said it’s conceivable that Toyota would want to build the Prius in California.
“It seems to make sense because a lot of the market for the Prius is in California, and it’s closer to its supplier base,” he said.
Toyota says it has received more than 140,000 orders for its third-generation Prius, now being built in Japan at a rate of about 2,300 a day, or 50,000 a month. That pace is about 1.5 times the target of 400,000 units it plans to sell in 2010.
In the U.S., though, Prius sales are down about 45 percent for the year.
The joint-venture plant in California, opened in 1984, has the capacity to build more than 400,000 vehicles a year. It now produces the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Corolla, but GM is shedding its Pontiac brand next year, leaving plenty of capacity.
Production for Toyota Mississippi was originally projected to be 120,000 to 150,000 a year.
If Toyota decided to build the Prius in California, it initially would have to import some of its component parts, such as the battery and drivetrain, from Japan – an expensive move.
But since the U.S. is the biggest market for Prius, ramping up production in California rather than waiting on the Blue Springs plant to be finished might pay off in the long run, Stoddard suggested.
Where would that leave Toyota Mississippi?
“You’ll end up getting something when Toyota needs extra capacity,” Stoddard said. “And I don’t know that Toyota won’t build the Prius in Mississippi.”
Automotive News last week reported that Toyota was thinking about building a different vehicle in Blue Springs.
Whatever vehicle Toyota builds in Blue Springs, it likely won’t be until 2012 at the earliest, Stoddard said.
“It’s a waiting game,” he said.

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal