By Dennis Seid
The Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi plant is scheduled to open in 2010, an official said Wednesday.
When Toyota announced in February that it was building a $1.3 billion plant to build the Highlander sport utility vehicle, officials said they hoped to open the plant “by 2010.”
Jerry Friedberg, small and mid-SUV market planning manager for Toyota Motor Sales, gave no reason why the plant would open nearly a year later than planned, but said “it’s on schedule to open in August 2010.”
However, a recent Wall Street Journal story said Toyota was considering slowing down expansion plans in North America. The Journal also said the company had pushed back the opening of the Blue Springs facility, which will be Toyota’s eighth North American assembly plant.
The news of the plant opening date coincided with Toyota’s official launch of the next generation Highlander. At a gathering of automotive journalists and other industry watchers near Austin, Texas, a fleet of the 2008-model Highlanders were made available to “ride and drive.”
The mid-sized “crossover” SUV will continued to be built at Toyota Motor Kyushu in Fukuoka, Japan, until the TMMMS goes online.
The Blue Springs plant will have the capacity to build 150,000 gas-engine Highlanders, but could expand to add the Highlander Hybrid, which is also built in Japan.
Stephen Haag, corporate sales manager of private distributors and sales strategies for Toyota Motor Sales, said the plant in Japan won’t be “shutting off the valve” once TMMMS opens.
“Toyota’s plants in Japan have more flexibility, and they can build several different models, so this one won’t shut down because the Mississippi plant opens,” he said.
Highlander production will in fact continue in Japan, where it is known as the Kluger.
As for the new Highlander, it is based on the Camry and Avalon sedans platform.
“Highlander is a critical component of both our three-vehicle mid-SUV strategy, and our three-vehicle hybrid strategy,” Haag said.
The Highlander, along with the FJ Cruiser and 4Runner, make up Toyota’s mid-sized SUV lineup, while the hybrid version joins the company’s iconic Prius and the Camry offering hybrid technology.
Last year the three hybrids combined for more than 170,000 in sales, accounting for 67 percent of all hybrids sold in the U.S. The Highlander accounted for more than 31,000, behind only the Prius in sales.
The company hopes to sell 138,000 Highlanders this year, including 28,000 hybrids.