Toyota begins building trucks in heart of pickup country

Toyota begins building trucks in heart of pickup country

By John Porretto

The Associated Press

HOUSTON Toyota Motor Corp.’s latest effort in the U.S. automotive industry is considered its most important, and what a place for it: deep in the heart of Texas, where American pickups have crowded backroads and highways for decades.

Japan’s top automaker is set to begin building its revamped, full-size Tundra pickup today at a 2.2 million-square-foot plant in San Antonio, a move aimed at grabbing a larger share of a lucrative market long dominated by Chevrolet’s Silverado, Ford’s F-150 and Dodge’s Ram.

On a broader scale, the $850 million investment affirms Toyota’s aggressive plans to grow its business as the company poises itself to unseat General Motors Corp. as the world’s No. 1 automaker.

Analysts say it also emphasizes the company’s confidence to take on the industry leaders at any level of the business. Toyota already has distinguished itself in North America with its bread-and-butter Camry sedan, always one of the best-selling cars annually, and its luxury Lexus brand, which has topped J.D. Power and Associates’ vehicle-dependability study for the past dozen years.

“This is one of the most important launches for Toyota in the U.S. market,” said Tom Libby, J.D. Power’s senior director of industry analysis. “It shows they’re serious enough to attack the heart of the pickup market.”

Analysts and others estimate as many as one in five pickups sold in the United States is bought in Texas.

But it won’t be easy for Toyota to grab a bigger share of the truck business, and not only because demand for full-size pickups has been shrinking as drivers shift to more fuel-efficient rides. For the first 10 months of 2006, sales of full-size pickups were off 9.8 percent from a year ago, according to Autodata Corp., which tracks industry sales.

Looking for bigger, better

Another challenge for Toyota is persuading pickup owners to give up their domestic models for a nameplate that’s been on the market since 1999 but has lagged GM, Ford and Dodge in size and power.

Toyota hopes to change that with the redesigned Tundra, which offers a more powerful stance and a 5.7-liter V8 engine that will help it compete head on with Detroit automakers. Toyota spokesman Mike Goss said engineers who designed the truck visited farms and ranches throughout the country to see how people were using their pickups.

“We feel like we’ve got a truck that can truly compete in a brand-loyal segment,” Goss said.

While the first models are scheduled to begin rolling off the Texas assembly line Friday, they won’t reach showrooms until the first quarter of next year, Goss said. Pricing has yet to be announced.

The highly automated Texas plant has the capacity to build 200,000 Tundras a year. The trucks also are made at Toyota’s Princeton, Ind., plant.

A glance at U.S. pickup sales for 2006 shows the huge gap Toyota faces in the full-size pickup market. GM, with its Chevy and GMC brands, sold 935,469 full-size pickups last year, while Ford sold 911,737, according to Autodata. DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group was in the middle of the pack with 400,543 sales, while Toyota and Nissan posted 126,529 and 86,945 sales respectively. Nissan began selling its first full-size pickup, the Titan, in 2003.