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Toyota plant decision expected within a year

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Toyota is likely to make a decision within the next year on whether to build a fourth engine plant in North America, company spokesman Daniel Sieger said Tuesday.

But Toyota officials won’t say if South Carolina is on their map. Automotive News reported Nov. 21 that Toyota was considering Tennessee, Mississippi and “other states” for the plant. Sieger said the company is looking in the United States, Canada and Mexico, but he would not name any particular state.

South Carolina officials could not be reached for comment.

But the Aiken area has been the subject of speculation over new automotive investment. Southern Business and Development magazine reported early this year that a 3,500-acre site near the Sage Mill Industrial Park in Aiken County was being eyed for a possible site for a new plant by Toyota, Kia or Audi. The magazine said sites near Chattanooga, Tenn.; Athens, Ala.; and Savannah were also being considered.

Toyota did announce a $1 million investment in September to partner with Savannah River National Laboratory to develop a lighter-weight and cost-effective hydrogen fuel storage system for future hydrogen-powered automobiles.

Sieger said the Japanese company needs more engines to keep up with its growing U.S. sales and expanding network of North American assembly plants.

By 2008, the company’s North American plants will be able to assemble 1.81 million cars and trucks, but only 1.44 million engines. Last year, the North American plants had to import 171,000 engines from Japan, which are more costly because of transportation costs than those produced in the region, Sieger said.

Toyota opened its first U.S. assembly plant in Georgetown, Ky., in 1988. It now has invested $16.3 billion and employs 38,000 people in North America, many of them at its assembly plants in Kentucky; Indiana; Ontario, Canada; and Tijuana, Mexico. Next year it will begin making Tundra trucks at a new assembly plant in San Antonio, and in 2008 it will begin making its RAV4 at a new plant in Woodstock, Ontario.

While General Motors and Ford have been losing sales in the United States, Toyota has been gaining. From January through October, U.S. customers bought 1.8 million Toyota cars and trucks, 11 percent more than in the first 10 months of 2004. About 1.2 million of the vehicles were made by workers at assembly plants in North America.

Most of the company’s engines are made near assembly plants, but the company’s largest engine plant is in Buffalo, W.Va., 176 miles from Georgetown, the closest assembly plant. The San Antonio plant is 964 miles from Huntsville, Ala., the closest engine plant.

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