The ongoing mystery of Toyota's Camry decision

Toyota Motor Corp.'s announcement this week that it would no longer export Camrys from Japan to the U.S. market gave me a private chuckle.

Why now, for heaven's sake? Why bother now?

Over the last 15 or 20 years, I asked every Toyota executive I could collar, "Why do you guys continue importing Camrys from Japan? Toyota has one of the largest auto plants in North America in Georgetown, Ky. It's capable of building half a million Camrys a year if necessary. Georgetown could easily produce every Camry sold in America.

"And yet Toyota continues producing a paltry few thousand in Japan – redundantly – and shipping them across the Pacific to dealers who could be served just as easily from Kentucky."

(Through August of this year, Toyota has imported fewer than 1,000 from Japan.)

"Why do you keep up the unnecessary expense?" I asked every chance I got, more out of bewilderment than anything else.

It was complicated, they always inferred, or stated outright. "The Japanese version is a trim package that Kentucky doesn't make," one explained, as though it was too difficult to hand off to the folks in Georgetown.

"We like to maintain an alternative source of the car," a different exec once explained.

Really?

Then how come you don't have alternative factory sources of every other model, I would wonder.

There have been moments when discontinuing the imports seemed the logical thing to do. Like in the mid-1990s, when U.S.-Japanese relations grew strained over the trade imbalance, for example.

Or several years ago when Toyota management began talking about making the North America operations more "self sufficient." Or back when Toyota also began getting Camrys out of Subaru's factory in Indiana. Or when the dollar's decline against the yen began accelerating a few years ago.

But it didn't happen.

And now it has -- and for no particular reason that wasn't also a reason a decade ago.

Is this all complicated, or merely puzzling?

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