Prius line to expand; Blue Springs impact unclear

Soon, “Prius” will be more than one car in the Toyota lineup.
And that might just have an impact on what happens to the Japanese automaker’s idled plant in Blue Springs.
At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday, Toyota said it will create a family of Prius cars because the name “has great value,” according to Toyota Motor Sales President Jim Lentz.
Last year it was rumored that Toyota would use the Prius name as a separate brand, much like its Lexus and Scion divisions. It’s still not clear how Toyota will go about using Prius, but officials want to capitalize on the brand.
“The strategy is still taking shape and obviously it will require additional models to qualify as a family,” Lentz said.
The new Prius vehicles would be marketed together to save on advertising costs, but there could be up to three models. Lentz said launching a model name and winning awareness with buyers costs more than $100 million.
“It’s much more efficient to market 300,000 or 400,000 vehicles under one brand name than it is to spend the dollars to market two or three model names,” he said.
The Prius is the world’s best-selling hybrid vehicle. Last year, it accounted for more than half of the 530,000 hybrids Toyota sold worldwide. It also was the best-selling vehicle in Japan.
And the company has said it wants to sell 1 million hybrids annually within a few years, a majority of them in North America, its biggest market.
To do so, Toyota plans to roll out eight new hybrid vehicles in the next few years, including new versions of existing gas-engine models.
It also plans to offer plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars starting in model-year 2012 and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in 2015.
As for the original Prius hybrid vehicle, it was originally planned to begin rolling off the assembly line in Blue Springs later this year. But in December 2008, citing the struggling economy and poor market conditions, Toyota said it would delay indefinitely the opening for the plant.
Toyota has invested about $300 million in Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi (TMMMS), which hasn’t had any major equipment installed. Officials say it would take about 18 months to get the equipment in and workers trained before production would begin.
If Toyota goes ahead with its plans to expand its hybrid lineup as well as the Prius name, Blue Springs could benefit.
But Toyota isn’t providing any hints.
Barbara McDaniel, a Toyota spokeswoman, said the news out of Detroit had “no impact on TMMMS at this point.”
Toyota has said it would restart operations in Blue Springs when “market conditions improve.”
When the automaker announced it was building the plant in 2007, the entire U.S. auto market accounted for nearly 17 million in sales. Last year, sales fell to less than 10.5 million.
Yoshi Inaba, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor North America, told reporters Monday that he was optimistic about sales this year.
He expects overall U.S. sales to improve to about 11.5 million this year, with more growth in 2011 and 2012. Inaba also predicted that Toyota’s market share in the U.S. will stay steady at its current 17 percent or rise.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

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