By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
When Toyota announced three years ago that it would build its popular Highlander sport utility vehicle at its Mississippi plant, state and local officials were elated. After all, it was the Japanese automaker’s best-selling SUV.
When Toyota said in 2008 it would assemble the Prius instead, the reaction was even more positive. The Prius was – and is – the best-selling hybrid in the world, and Toyota sells more of them in the U.S. than anywhere else.
But what about the Corolla? A compact sedan now in its 10th generation, it’s never been a car to excite the masses.
Yet it is the best-selling car of all time and is Toyota’s second best-seller in the U.S. behind the Camry.
And the reaction from Thursday’s announcement Corollas will roll off the assembly line next fall?
“This is even better,” said Randy Kelley, executive director of Three Rivers Planning and Development. “The Corolla will outsell the Highlander 2-1 … to me, we could not have gotten a better car to build for the long term.”
Indeed, the Corolla is one of Toyota’s core vehicles. Built since 1966, the vehicle has registered more than 33 million sales worldwide. It’s built in 13 countries and sold in more than 100.
The Corolla, said “How Toyota Became No. 1” author David Magee, “is time-tested.”
Building the Corolla in Blue Springs is a good move, he said.
“I am not surprised at this point because I think the company has moved very smartly back to its core in recent months – and the Corolla is at the very center for Toyota,” he said. “This tells me two things. One, the electric car has the company thinking more hybrid capacity makes no sense now. The Corolla is time-tested. Two, it says the company wants to do more of what it does best in America – build and sell small cars with high value.”
From 2000 to 2006, Toyota saw U.S. Corolla sales spike from 230,156 to 387,388 – a 68 percent rise.
But from 2006 to 2009, sales fell 23 percent. The 296,874 Corollas sold last year was the first time since 2002 that U.S. Corolla sales dropped below 300,000.
Corolla sales are up about 18 percent this year, giving Toyota officials confidence that the worst is over. Last year, overall auto industry sales in the U.S. was about 10.4 million – the fewest since 1982.
Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said despite the recall debacle earlier this year that led to more than 8 million recalls and a tarnishing of Toyota’s image, “we’re still the No. 1 retailer of automobiles in the U.S. … the biggest question is how the industry overall is doing. We’re on track for 11.5 million in (total industry) sales. We’re very confident where we are today.”
But the Corolla is in a very competitive segment. Nearly every major automaker has a vehicle that battles with it for sales supremacy. Chevy, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda and Nissan all have offerings similar to the Corolla.
Yet the Corolla still reigns supreme.
Haig Stoddard, an auto industry analysts for IHS Global Insight, said shifting production of the Corolla to Mississippi “is a good move.”
“Toyota has to have the plant because the Corollas is where they had the biggest crunch as far as capacity.”
Because Toyota closed the California plant it co-owned with General Motors in April, Corolla production was shifted to Japan and Canada. Toyota’s biggest market for the Corolla is the U.S., and company officials have said that “building cars where we sell them” is a long-term strategy.
As for concerns that Corolla sales have fallen, Stoddard noted that Toyota wasn’t alone.
“Corolla sales will be back up some day; they were down because the whole industry was down,” he said. “But the Corolla is a bread-and-butter vehicle and it has long been at the top of its segment and will likely continue.”