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Gearing up for Prius

When Toyota announced in Feb. 2007 that it would build its Highlander SUV at a plant to be constructed in Blue Springs, right outside of Tupelo, it was the biggest economic news to hit the state since Nissan.

A similar shockwave went through the state when Toyota unveiled its plans to scrap production of the Highlander in Blue Springs and make that plant the site where the Prius would be built.

In July, when the Prius news broke, gas was pushing $4 a gallon. So the thought of Blue Springs being the U.S. production home of the most popular hybrid in the short history of hybrids was compelling, to put it mildly.

The Prius, with its combination of an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, has been called “the gold standard” of hybrids by Edmunds auto magazine, a widely recognized authority on the automotive industry.

Toyota’s Blue Springs plant is scheduled to go online in 2010. Gov. Haley Barbour said he and his staff are in “constant contact” with Toyota officials, and the plant is right on schedule. Reports surfaced Thursday afternoon that Toyota officials were considering delaying the plant’s opening by about a year, to 2011.

“That’s rumor and speculation,” Randy Kelly, executive director of Three Rivers Planning and Development District, said Thursday afternoon. “There have been no efforts to stop construction.”

“Toyota has not advised the state that it will delay the start of operations at the Prius plant in Blue Springs,” Gov. Haley Barbour said in a statement.

If history is any indicator, workers in Blue Springs literally will not be able to build them fast enough. Toyota sold 180,000 Priuses in 2007, with most of those cars having a 24-hour inventory at dealers.

The version of the Prius that will be built in Blue Springs has been the subject of intense anticipation in automotive circles. Scheduled to debut in January at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, the 2010 Prius will be a significant upgrade from previous models.

It will feature a 1.8-liter hybrid performance engine, up from the old 1.5-liter engine, yet its fuel economy will improve. Early EPA estimates have the Prius’ miler per gallon at more than 50. The driving range of the electric battery, Edmunds reports, will also increase. The most talked-about new feature is the lithium ion battery pack. Lithium ion batteries are commonly used in devices such as laptop computers, but have never been deployed on this large a scale. In an interview with Business Week last February, Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe said all the company’s future hybrids would have lithium ion packs.

Independent tests of vehicles fitted with a lithium ion pack have had startling results. Cars have driven up to 40 miles on battery power alone and averaged more than 100 miles per gallon.

With energy costs rising, consumers will have to monitor their usage of everything from lights in their house to gas in their car. Glenn McCullough, with 25 years of experience in the utility industry, is on the frontlines of the energy-savings battle.

“Clearly I think consumers will be attracted to plug-in electric hybrid vehicles. Toyota is a leader in that area,” said McCullough, a former mayor of Tupelo who has spent most of his post-political career as an economic developer. “We’re looking for vehicles that not only offer more miles per gallon, but Toyota is building a vehicle that can go 38 miles on a battery. And 70 percent of consumers in the U.S. don’t drive 38 miles in a day.”

Like everybody else associated with Toyota’s setting up shop in Blue Springs, McCullough believes the switch from the Highlander to the Prius will “absolutely” make the plant more viable long-term.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

About Clay Chandler

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