Adviser says Toyota to still build SUVs in Mississippi

Published 2:55 pm Monday, June 23, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — A consultant for Toyota Motor Corp. says the automaker won’t retool its plans to build Highlander sport utility vehicles at a plant under construction in north Mississippi, despite the trend of people seeking more fuel-efficient cars.

Dennis Cuneo says the Highlander is a car-based SUV and said “its sales are doing well.”

“The auto industry is a cyclical industry,” Cuneo said Monday. “Toyota believes in the long run this is going to be a good place to manufacture and build vehicles.”

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Cuneo’s comments came during a news conference that Gov. Haley Barbour held to announce more details about the University of Mississippi’s Center for Manufacturing Excellence.

The $22 million center at Ole Miss will help Toyota and its suppliers by preparing engineers, accountants, business managers and other professionals. Barbour said the center also will train employees for other industries in the state by offering an engineering degree with an emphasis in manufacturing.

Funding for the center was included in the $293.9 million package state lawmakers approved in 2007 to bring a Toyota plant to north Mississippi.

Earlier this month, Nissan North America said it was eliminating a truck-making shift in Mississippi in favor of one to build cars. The move came amid rising gas prices and dropping demand for trucks in the U.S.

Other manufacturers also are readjusting production, including Toyota, which has slowed production of its full-size Tundra pickup at a Texas plant. General Motors says it will close four truck and SUV plants by 2011, and Ford’s F-series pickup is no longer the top-selling U.S. vehicle. It was beaten out in May by the Honda Civic and Accord and by the Toyota Corolla and Camry.

Cuneo, a former Toyota executive, said the auto industry is experiencing its first downturn in a long time, but the automaker is “committed” to Mississippi.

Highlander U.S. sales in May were down 9.6 percent compared to May 2007, according to Autodata Corp. However, sales from January through May were up 1.9 percent. The overall market for new car sales during that time was down 8 percent.

The 1,700-acre plant site near Blue Springs in north Mississippi is scheduled to begin production in May 2010. The plant will create 2,000 jobs, paying about $14 to $15 an hour.

Barbour said the center should have students enrolled about the time Toyota begins production. Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat said construction on the center is scheduled to begin this fall.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.