Highlander production celebrated

Daily Clarion/Michael Caterina

Chief Executive Officer for the North America Region of Toyota James E. Lentz speaks to thousands of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana employees in the Princeton, Ind. plant Thursday for the ceremony to celebrate the start of the production of the 2014 Highlander including the hybrid and export models. the $430 million investment has added 600 jobs to the facility.

PRINCETON—The first ever Toyota Highlander Hybrid to be produced at Toyota Motors Manufacturing Indiana in Princeton was unveiled Thursday morning at a celebration for those workers involved with its production. 

The popular midsize SUV has brought $430 million in investments and more than 600 jobs to the automotive plant—and now TMMI also has the bragging rights of being the only producers of the Highlander gas and hybrid models.

Toyota’s North America Region CEO Jim Lentz is confident of the demand for the new hybrid version of the 2014 Highlander.

Toyota expects to sell about 127,000 Highlanders this year in the U.S. alone; the Highlander Hybrid portion is around 5,000, Lentz said. (Total production from TMMI, including the Sequoia and Highlander, will be 180,000 this year.) 

“If you compare it to Prius volumes, there are 240,000,” he said. That’s quite a bit less, Lentz admits, but buyers who want the best technology purchase Highlander Hybrids—and it’s still one of two of the largest volume hybrids in the SUV market. 

Lentz knows building on a consumer’s wants and needs is crucial to success. Looking at the past several years, consumers have been drawn to mid-size SUVs like the RAV4 and the Highlander.

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Highlander. The hybrid model is a special adaptation for the consumer.

“We expect it to do very, very well,” Lentz said.

Crash testing has not been finalized yet, Lentz said, but they are confident in the vehicle’s safety. The Highlander has the Star Safety system and lane assistance built into it along with radar cruise. 

“If you happen to drift out of a lane it’ll start to beep at ya,” TMMI President Norm Bafunno said.

It’s an aggressive, exciting and dynamic exterior, Bafunno said. “But the real secret of this vehicle is its interior,” he said.

You can now seat three across in the third row, Lentz said. The vehicle seats eight.

It has a new interface for maps as well with a touch screen. There are many new features, including changes to its suspension, allowing a quieter and more comfortable drive.

“I think this is a more revolutionary change than we’d seen in the past,” Lentz said, “it feels like a class above vehicle.”

Kelly Dillon, manager of external affairs, internal communications and corporate compliance, said that her favorite feature of the new Highlander is probably the center console. 

The console is really large now, for a woman’s purse, iPad or laptop,” she said. “It opens really smooth...I love that feature.”

There’s a panoramic roof option which allows the sunroof to be enjoyed by the second row. 

A small shelf is integrated into the vehicle. “Typically, people put their iPhones into cupholders,” Bafunno said. “We’ve got a spot for the iPhones...I think that’ll be very accepted by the customers.”

In fact, gas versions of the 2014 Highlander are already being shipped to car lots in the U.S. and exports are already in distribution channels. 

“We’re ramping up quickly and expect to be producing at full capacity by the end of January,” Bafunno said.

“We never want to discount the Canadian group because those are always big customers of ours,” Bafunno said. 

But New Zealand and Australia (where it is known as the Toyota Kluger), Georgia, Estonia, Ukraine and Russia are among the new market for the Highlander, he said. 

Exporting to Australia and New Zealand means right hand drive Highlanders are being created at TMMI for the first time. 

“It might be a great vehicle for our post office to use,” Bafunno laughed.

“What’s exciting for Indiana is to assemble this power train in this plant,” he said. “We’ve never done a hybrid power train before, and we think it’s one of the technology pathways to the future.”

Princeton has been a longtime home to coal mines, so it may seem a little ironic that Toyota has brought hybrids to production here. But Bafunno said that the hybrid is another way of merging Toyota’s philosophy of protecting the environment with community values.

”I think it’s just a natural extension that our product does the same thing,” Bafunno said, then added, “we need to continue to look for ways to increase the fuel efficiency.”

Hybrids will be the core power trade into the future, Lentz said.

After all, not only is there customer demand—there are federal regulations that Toyota must keep in line with. 

“As an industry we’re going to have to average over 50 miles per gallon this next decade,” Lentz said. 

Will hybrids someday be all there is? 

“It’s difficult to say,” he said. 

For example, for a full sized truck there’s no power hybrid train option available. 

 “Could there be one day? Hopefully so,” Lentz said.

Globally there are 5 million Toyota Hybrids on the road today, more than 2 million in the United States alone.

Lentz and Bafunno view the Highlanders as part of the auto industry’s return to glory.

“I think it’s more than a comeback,” Lentz said. “When we hit the bottom in 2010 the (auto) industry was a little under $11 million; this year it’s going to end up somewhere between $15.5 and $15.6 million,”

Toyota has about 2.5 million of that industry.

They haven’t finalized sales forecasts for 2014, but analysts believe the industry will top $16 million, Lentz said. 

“We’re all very, very bullish about where the market’s headed,” he said.

That same confidence helped Toyota choose Princeton’s automotive plant as the lone locale for the Highlander other than those produced in China. They’ll be hiring another 200 between now and summer 2014, which means more than 600 total jobs are being created for people here. 

When the decision was made to localize the hybrid power train, they looked at who could increase capacity of building the Highlander efficiently, Bafunno said. That’s why TMMI was chosen.

“The team here has proved their capability,” he said, “it’s not by accident these things are happening.”

Is there room for more expansion at TMMI?

“There’s lots of land,” Lentz laughed.

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