Prius could find its way back to U.S. production

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

BLUE SPRINGS – It’s been mentioned more than once: The Toyota Corolla and the Prius are built on the same platform.
So, a theory goes, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi could build both vehicles.
And since all of Toyota’s North American plants build more than one model, then building the Prius seems the next logical step for TMMMS.
But that might not be the case, at least for now.
Toyota officials say their focus is on Corolla production and meeting growing demand for the vehicle, which they announced Thursday would roll out of the Blue Springs plant in 2011.
Sales for the Corolla in the U.S. are up 18 percent for the year. Last year, Toyota sold nearly 200,000 Corollas. But most of the Corollas will be imported from Japan, with the rest coming from Toyota’s plant in Ontario.
The automaker wants U.S. production of the Corolla – the company’s second-best-selling vehicle behind the Camry in the U.S. – to resume as quickly as possible.
“As we looked at our strategy, we saw an incredible need that was in North America, for the Corolla,” said Jim Lentz, the president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA.
“We see the subcompact segment growing in size as well as percentage of the overall market. So our immediate need was to get Corolla production going again in the U.S.”
Before Thursday, it was the Prius – not the Corolla – that had been designated for production in Blue Springs.
And before that, when Toyota announced in February 2007 that it was building its Northeast Mississippi plant, the chosen vehicle was the Highlander SUV.
As for building the Prius in the future at Toyota Mississippi, “it is possible,” said Steve St. Angelo, the president of both TMMMS and Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky. “But the tooling is different for making the Prius compared to making the Corolla.”
That means if the Prius were to be made at TMMMS, another production line would have to be built.
But Toyota officials said it’s too early to talk about building anything else at TMMMS when the first car isn’t going to come off the production line until next fall.
And it is faster – and cheaper – to get Corolla production started. Suppliers for the vehicle already are in place since the vehicle is made in Canada and, up until April 1, in California.
Yoshimi Inaba, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor North America, said Blue Springs “is centrally located and close to our supplier base” in the South and Midwest. For example, the plant that supplies engines for the Corolla is in West Virginia.
To build the Prius, Toyota would have to establish another supplier base, including a critical battery supplier for the hybrid system used in the car.
Currently, the Prius is made mostly in Japan, with another smaller factory in China. Battery supply shortages have been a problem for Toyota.
And also, Toyota seems to be happy with the supply of Prius coming from Japan for now.
Haig Stoddard, an auto industry analyst with IHS Global Insight, said it’s quite possible for Toyota to bring Prius production here – eventually.
With the yen-dollar exchange rate cutting into profits, Toyota will have to look seriously at building the Prius in the U.S., its largest market.
“I can see it happening in the next three or four years,” he said.

Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or dennis.seid@djournal.com.