DALLAS — Toyota dealers have been crying for more Tacomas and now they'll finally get some relief.
The Japanese automaker has struggled to crank out enough of the segment-leading midsize pickup at its Texas and Mexico factories, even with years of overtime. Now, thanks to the partnership announced last week with Mazda, Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz is prepared to turn on the spigot to fend off midsize pickup challengers.
Toyota will build a $1.6 billion U.S. auto plant at a site to be chosen in a 50-50 partnership with Mazda that nets each of them 150,000 vehicles a year in additional capacity. Production at the plant is to start in 2021.
Although Toyota will make its compact Corolla sedan at the U.S. plant, it can now use a different Mexican plant under construction to make Tacomas rather than the Corollas it was originally slated to produce.
"The increased capacity is really going to be pickup trucks," Lentz told Automotive News.
The new strategy helps Lentz solve a major piece of a complicated puzzle: getting Toyota's U.S. car/truck balance in sync with consumers who have turned away from bread-and-butter sedans such as the Corolla and the Camry for crossovers such as the RAV4, Highlander and all-new C-HR subcompact.
"Right now if you ask our dealers what's the No. 1 vehicle we need more of, what are customers coming in [to buy] and we don't have enough to supply their needs, it's Tacoma," Lentz said. "That's true here, that's true in Mexico, that's true in Canada, that's true in Hawaii."
Lentz has solved the RAV4 and Highlander supply problems through imports and North American plant expansions and is ramping up C-HR supply at dealerships, helping Toyota buck the downward sales trend in July and post a 3.6 percent gain. But days' supply of the Tacoma, which is made only in North America, has often been in single digits.
Tacoma sales have risen only 0.3 percent in the first seven months of the year to 111,968 because of supply. Sales of all Toyota division light trucks, however, have risen 8.8 percent in the same period.
That scarcity of Tacomas has allowed new competitors such as the Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon and Honda Ridgeline to cut sharply into the Tacoma's market share in the last two years. Ford's Ranger is coming next. Ranger production is expected to begin in late 2018 at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich. It will go on sale as a 2019 model.
Before the arrival of these new competitors, Toyota and Nissan had the midsize truck market to themselves for years.
Toyota was already expanding capacity at its Tacoma plant in Baja California in Mexico by 60,000 trucks a year to 160,000 total. That expansion will continue and come online late this year or early next year, Lentz said.
The second Mexico plant in Guanajuato state was slated to make 200,000 Corollas a year, but that doesn't necessarily translate to the same number of Tacomas. But any way you slice it, there's still going to be lot of "Tacos," as the pickup is lovingly called, heading into the market in late 2019 or early 2020 when the Guanajuato plant is up and running.
Lentz isn't worried about oversupply. He's concerned about how quickly he can get more Tacomas to dealerships in truck country such as Texas and in big markets such as California.
He said, "This gets me pickup capacity quicker than anything else because I've already got a plant under construction."