Drive to the Future

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Published: July 21,2008

In the rush for hybrid vehicles generated by the ever-rising cost of gasoline, the model that has outsold all others combined is the Toyota Prius.

And starting in 2010, it will be made in Mississippi.

Toyota announced earlier this month that its plant in Blue Springs, originally slated to produce the Highlander crossover SUV, will be the only plant in North America to manufacture the wildly popular Prius.

The Highlander will be built in Princeton, Ind. Toyota’s other top-selling hybrid, the Camry, will come out of Kentucky.

The rearranging is part of the company’s efforts to shift its market strategy in response to increasing demand for fuel-efficient vehicles and the disappearing sales of gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. Along with the Prius announcement, Toyota also said that it will temporarily suspend production of the Tundra truck and Sequoia SUV starting August 8.

“The truck market continues to worsen, so unfortunately we must temporarily suspend production. But this good news about production mix demonstrates our long-term commitment to our North American operations and to our team members, supplier partners and communities where are plants are located,” said Jim Wiseman, vice president of external affairs for Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America. “By using this downturn as an opportunity to develop team members and improve our operations, we hope to emerge even stronger.”

The Prius revelation was met with celebration among those who were involved in Toyota building a plant in Mississippi.

“Toyota is premiere auto manufacturer in the world and will manufacture the premiere environmentally friendly car in the world here,” Gov. Haley Barbour said. “It’s the car of the future. They are literally selling them as fast as they can make them”

Barbour pointed to Toyota’s record of increasing the size and employment of their plants once they have gotten operational, saying the company’s “history of growth” coupled with the high demand for the Prius as an economic boon to the state.

“When we announced that Toyota was coming to Mississippi, it was the most sought-after economic development project in the nation at the time,” Barbour said.

Interim Sen. Roger Wicker, who sharpened his political skills in Northeast Mississippi as that region’s congressman, echoed Barbour.

“Hybrid vehicles have a bright future in our country. With gasoline costs at record prices, demand for cars like the Prius has skyrocketed,” Wicker said. “Our country’s transition to a more hybrid-friendly market is great news for both our nation and Mississippi’s workforce.”

Auto industry media are also high on the Prius. In a review of the 2008 Prius, Edmunds said Toyota was miles ahead of the competition, with the company introducing its second-generation Prius as most of its counterparts have failed to develop their first gasoline-electric hybrid model.

“This four-door hybrid has become a hit with consumers because of its stellar fuel economy, relatively uncompromised driving and acceleration characteristics and reasonable price,” the review said. The base model Prius has an MSRP of $21,500. Edmunds says the model that will be built in Mississippi should improve upon the current 48 miler-per-gallon of the current model “without giving anything up in the way of drivability.”

“To be chosen as the first production site in the United States for the highly successful, pioneering hybrid, the Toyota Prius, is truly an honor and a compliment to the Mississippi manufacturing workforce,” said David Rumbarger of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, one of the members of the PUL Alliance that groomed the megasite that eventually lured Toyota to Mississippi. “As one of the company’s top sellers, and in a rising oil market, the news couldn’t be better for the P.U.L. Alliance counties and the region as a whole.”

The change in plans for the Blue Springs plant will not effect suppliers who were already in place for the Highlander, Barbour said, adding that he did not expect the state’s inventive package originally offered to require altering. The plant’s opening will be delayed until fall 2010. The original start date was in the spring of that year.

Barbour did note that sales of the Prius “far, far exceed that of the Highlander” but did not admit to any trepidation on the state’s part over the declining sales of the SUV when it was still scheduled for production in Mississippi.

“We were not anxious about it but are not surprised that Toyota is making a good business decision (in announcing the switch),” Barbour said. “That’s good management on their part. And it just so happens that Mississippi is the beneficiary of that.”

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

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