Toyota bets on America for 2013

The Japanese carmaker's Kentucky-built Avalon is just part of its larger U.S. production strategy.

By Jason Notte Nov 14, 2012 5:48PM

Image: Car tire (Sarah M Golonka/Brand X/Getty Images)It's been whacked by recalls, an earthquake and a tsunami, but Toyota (TM) is starting to think like the dominant automaker it once was.

Toyota sales are up 30% year-to-date from 2011, with car sales increasing almost 39% in that time. Bill Fay, who was named general manager of the Toyota division of Toyota's U.S. operations back in July, seems to think that increased stateside design and construction may be the key to not only Toyota's recent success, but its future in the U.S. market. He points to the revamped 2013 Toyota Avalon as an example of what the company can do when it designs cars specifically for Americans.

"Back in the '80s, all Toyota vehicles shipped to America were designed, engineered and built in Japan with little or no U.S. input," Fay told the Detroit Free Press. "But Avalon is a real game-changer because it embodies the commitment of American teamwork to develop exciting products for our customers."

Hoping to ditch the same old-man smell that once funked up brands like Lincoln, Buick and Cadillac, the Avalon is trying to escape its stodgy, semi-lux roots by trading in its boatlike frame for a body and platform based on the Lexus ES. Toyota is trimming its fuel economy down from a gaudy 23 miles per gallon to somewhere between 30 and 40 while filling the cabin with tech toys and hand-stitched trim. With the average age of an Avalon owner hovering around 60, Toyota's trying to bring that down a bit by getting younger car buyers to stop looking at the Avalon as a retirement-mobile or their grandparents' car.

The Avalon was designed at Toyota's Calty Design center in Ann Arbor, Mich., engineered at the Toyota Technical Center in nearby Saline and is being built at a Toyota factory in Georgetown, Ky., specifically for the American market. It won't be making any forays into Europe or Japan, and that seems to be how Toyota's American consumers like it. Toyota's sold nearly 600,000 of its domestically produced cars in the U.S. compared to just 405,000 of its cars made in Japan or elsewhere.

Is that a lot? Both Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) produce more cars here, but don't come close to matching the 43% sales growth of Toyota's U.S.-made cars within the last year. In fact, Toyota's sold more U.S.-made vehicles this year than Italian-owned “Detroit” automaker Chrysler, which parted with just 416,000 year-to-date.

After a nearly three-year nightmare, it looks like Toyota's American dream is finally coming true.

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