Video: Truckin' in Texas

updated 11/17/2006 11:12:46 AM ET 2006-11-17T16:12:46

Toyota Motor Corp.’s latest effort in the U.S. automotive industry is considered its most important, and what a place for it: deep in the heart of Texas, where American pickups have crowded backroads and highways for decades.

Japan’s top automaker is set to begin building its revamped, full-size Tundra pickup Friday at a 2.2 million-square-foot plant in San Antonio, a move aimed at grabbing a larger share of a lucrative market long dominated by Chevrolet’s Silverado, Ford’s F-150 and Dodge’s Ram.

On a broader scale, the $850 million investment affirms Toyota’s aggressive plans to grow its business as the company poises itself to unseat General Motors Corp. as the world’s No. 1 automaker.

Analysts say it also emphasizes the company’s confidence to take on the industry leaders at any level of the business. Toyota already has distinguished itself in North America with its bread-and-butter Camry sedan, always one of the best-selling cars annually, and its luxury Lexus brand, which has topped J.D. Power and Associates’ vehicle-dependability study for the past dozen years.

“This is one of the most important launches for Toyota in the U.S. market,” said Tom Libby, J.D. Power’s senior director of industry analysis. “It shows they’re serious enough to attack the heart of the pickup market.”

Analysts and others estimate as many as one in five pickups sold in the United States is bought in Texas.

But it won’t be easy for Toyota to grab a bigger share of the truck business, and not only because demand for full-size pickups has been shrinking as drivers shift to more fuel-efficient rides. For the first 10 months of 2006, sales of full-size pickups were off 9.8 percent from a year ago, according to Autodata Corp., which tracks industry sales.

Another challenge for Toyota is persuading pickup owners to give up their domestic models for a nameplate that’s been on the market since 1999 but has lagged GM, Ford and Dodge in size and power.

Toyota hopes to change that with the redesigned Tundra, which offers a more powerful stance and a 5.7-liter V8 engine that will help it compete head on with Detroit automakers. Toyota spokesman Mike Goss said engineers who designed the truck visited farms and ranches throughout the country to see how people were using their pickups.

“We feel like we’ve got a truck that can truly compete in a brand-loyal segment,” Goss said.

Kevin Worfe, general manager of Universal Toyota in San Antonio, said he expects an additional level of interest from Texas truck drivers because the Tundra will be “born, bred and driven in Texas.”

“We’re already getting the buzz from F-150 and Ram owners,” Worfe said.

While the first models are scheduled to begin rolling off the Texas assembly line Friday, they won’t reach showrooms until the first quarter of next year, Goss said. Pricing has yet to be announced.

The highly automated Texas plant has the capacity to build 200,000 Tundras a year. The trucks also are made at Toyota’s Princeton, Ind., plant.

A glance at U.S. pickup sales for 2006 shows the huge gap Toyota faces in the full-size pickup market. GM, with its Chevy and GMC brands, sold 935,469 full-size pickups last year, while Ford sold 911,737, according to Autodata. DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group was in the middle of the pack with 400,543 sales, while Toyota and Nissan posted 126,529 and 86,945 sales respectively. Nissan began selling its first full-size pickup, the Titan, in 2003.

By no means do the domestics plan to sit idly by while Toyota and Nissan tout their full-size entries.

GM is using a flag-waving anthem by John Mellencamp in TV advertisements for its redesigned 2007 Silverado, a vehicle considered key to the automaker’s turnaround. GM is doing its best to surpass Ford’s F-Series pickup, the country’s best-selling vehicle. The new Silverados and Sierras began arriving in showrooms in the past month.

Ford, meanwhile, plans to spend millions to keep the F-Series on top, and it really can’t afford not to. The struggling automaker, which lost roughly $7 billion in the first nine months of this year, sold 672,732 F-Series pickups from January-October, accounting for 29 percent of its overall domestic sales, said Ford spokesman George Pipas.

Yet, in part because of its aging F-150, Ford is likely to see sales of pickups decline slightly next year, while GM and Toyota climb a bit thanks to new models, according to Global Insight, an economic research and consulting company. Ford’s next F-150 redesign is slated for 2008.

Global Insight analyst George Magliano said Tundra sales could climb as high as 194,000 in 2007, compared with an estimated 122,000 this year. But he acknowledged the long road ahead.

“There’s no doubt this new truck is an improvement over its small, underpowered predecessor,” Magliano said. “They’re still not in the same class as (GM and Ford), but they’re starting to make some big waves.”

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