By Murray Evans
The Associated Press
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - The first of the second-generation Camry Solaras rolled off the assembly line Monday as company officials touted the car as the most American of any Toyota to date.
Under a banner that read "The All-American Solara" and with the Neil Diamond song "America" playing in the background, a red Solara - with a red, white and blue bow on top - was unveiled during a ceremony at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, where the car will be exclusively built. Plans are to build about 30,000 Solaras through the end of 2003, with production of 64,000 cars planned for 2004.
The car isn't technically 100 percent American - it's built on a Camry platform, which means Japan-based Toyota is responsible for the engine, transmission and drive train, said Gary Convis, president of Toyota's plant at Georgetown, which employs more than 7,000 people.
But from planning to design to engineering to assembly, all phases of the Solara's production have been done in the United States.
"Toyota has got platform responsibility," Convis said. "But to customize that to the beauty of what we think will attract the American consumer, we take responsibility in North America to design it, build it and sell it."
All previous Toyota products have been designed in Japan, said Wil James, the vice president of manufacturing at the Georgetown plant.
But Toyota wanted to see just how independent its North American branch could be, Convis said. The idea is simple, he said - those in the United States are more familiar with what works in the U.S. car market.
"It's a milestone for (Toyota in) North America," he said. "It gives us an opportunity to show Toyota what we really can do. It's measurable. Any new model launch is a challenge. There are so many details to manage and so many issues to take care of. By having only North Americans doing it, they can really see what stage we are at in our development, to become more self-reliant."
The car's engineering, planning, technical and styling development was managed by Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America in Erlanger; Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, Calif.; and Toyota Motor Sales, USA.
"Toyota's sales in the United States are increasing, so we want to manufacture where we sell," said Edward Mantey, the vice president for engineering design at the Toyota Technical Center. "By having engineering and manufacturing together here in North America, we're able to build a better product for the North American market.
"We are trying to localize development. One of the important reasons for localizing development is because our suppliers are here in North America. If you're doing the engineering in Japan, and trying to communicate with suppliers here in North America, it would be a very long-distance type of communication. By having engineering in the United States, we're able to work more closely with our suppliers in designing the parts that they're going to make."
The Solara debuted in the fall of 1998 and was developed to target what Toyota calls "the sport specialty segment" of the car market. The new Solara will be sold only in North America, Convis said.
"This product was 21 months in the development stage, so it's also a pretty fast-track project," Convis said.
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