By DENNIS SEID / Daily Journal

BLUE SPRINGS • When Toyota Mississippi rolled out a “Blueprint”-colored Corolla amid smoke and flashing lights onto a stage Monday, the hundreds of guests and team members gathered to watch cheered heartily.

The newest Corolla, the 12th-generation compact car that’s the entry level vehicle in the Toyota family, will be on dealership showrooms and lots in a few weeks. The nearly 2,000 team members at the Blue Springs plant have been working feverishly the past few weeks to perfect building a vehicle that essentially has changed 98 percent from the last generation.

And, as officials emphasized, the car is “greater than ever.”

“It’s so special because of the two-year journey,” said Toyota Mississippi President Sean Suggs. “A lot of people don’t know, but it takes about two years to get to the point you see today. A lot of preparation, a lot of training and development, a lot of ‘want-to’ has to go into making this vehicle to the quality level you’re seeing… It’s hats off to our team members. They keep raising the bar every single day.”

The plant has built more than 1.17 million Corollas, but the newest model is built on the new Toyota New Global Architecture platform, which allowed the automaker to lower the center of gravity of the car to give it better handling and fuel efficiency, among other features.

Toyota invested $170 million in the plant to prepare for the new Corolla and to hire another 400 team members. Until the new Mazda-Toyota plant in Huntsville, Alabama opens in 2021, it will be up to the Blue Springs plant to meet demand for the car.

Toyota Motor Corp. chief engineer Yasushi Udea was instrumental in the design and launch of the new Corolla.

“I’m certain we could not have reached this major milestone without all of your cooperation and effort,” he told the crowd of onlookers and team members gathered for the ceremony. “I want to thank all of you for all your outstanding efforts and contributions to our achievement.”

Corolla is the world’s best-selling car, having sold 46 million since 1966. In the U.S., more than 300,000 have been sold in each of the past six years.

Udea called the Corolla an “icon” of the company.

“I hope you share my belief that our new Corolla is greater than ever,” he told the team members.

Toyota threw a reception for guests after the rollout, and a centerpiece at the event was a five-foot-long replica cake of the Corolla, decked out with lights and car tags. Designed and baked by Jeff and Kathleen Taylor of Oxford, the strawberry cake with blue icing weighed some 250 pounds and was made to feed as many as 400.

For Chris Reynolds, the chief administrative officer of Toyota Motor North America who also heads manufacturing and corporate resources, seeing the new Corolla was like having the cake and the icing, too. He had nothing but praise to lavish on Toyota Mississippi team members and the engineering and design team involved in creating the new car.

“It’s really a team effort … so many hands are in the manufacturing of this great vehicle,” he said. “It kind of makes you feel like you’re on a winning football team and you just won the Super Bowl. I’m not going to Disney World, but I’m driving away in a Corolla.”

Reynolds also said Blue Springs’ status as the only manufacturer of the Corolla put the plant in a special light.

“Corolla is a hot-selling car,” he said. “We can’t make enough to satisfy demand.”

The new Mazda-Toyota plant doesn’t present a problem for Toyota Mississippi, Reynolds emphasized.

“The plant solidifies the position of Mississippi because there are a lot of common parts, a lot of common suppliers, a lot of common intellectual property with the vehicles.”

The TNGA platform also gives Toyota the flexibility to build several models off the same design. The Corolla, Prius and RAV4 have similar underpinnings, which means the automaker has the flexibility to build them anywhere, including Blue Springs.

“It’s always a step-by-step thing,” he said. “I’m not going to rule that out. We’ve talked about it. But we just need to see how this new Corolla goes. There’s always great possibility for the future.”

Suggs, the effervescent leader of the plant, has placed high hopes and faith in the team members in Blue Springs.

“We can get it done here,” said. “We can build a highly advanced, highly technical vehicle here in Mississippi that will satisfy the customers. We’ve done it more than a million times in a town of a population of 400. It’s pretty impressive.”

Gov. Phil Bryant agreed.

“It’s the team makers that make it happen,” he said. “They show up each morning and each afternoon ready to go to work, ready to build one of the finest automobiles that man has ever known.”

The 500 team members at Auto Parts Manufacturing Mississippi in Baldwyn had a separate celebration later in the day. The first supplier for Toyota Mississippi, APMM provides stamped and welded components, includingthe front and rear bumpers for the Corolla, as well as interior parts, and front and rear suspension parts. APMM invested $100 million and added another 50 team members in preparation for the new Corolla.