To Russia With Love, Toyota Expanding Exports of American-Made Vehicles

Foreign-owned brands increasingly using U.S. plants as global production base.

by on Feb.28, 2013

A Venza at the Toyota engineering center near Detroit.

Toyota will begin exporting its Venza crossover to Russia and Ukraine later this year, part of an expanding list of products the maker is shipping from its network of U.S. assembly plants to markets around the world.

And Toyota isn’t alone. A growing number of American-made products are being earmarked for export, a reversal of a decades-long downward trend that saw most of the cross-border traffic involving foreign-made vehicles imported for American showrooms.

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Toyota and other Asian makers are rapidly ramping up export programs, but European makers still dominate, as much as half of the production at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama going abroad in a typical year. Domestic makers, ironically, have been lagging in the export drive, though that may also be changing.

“We are proud that Toyota’s U.S. manufacturing operations are continuing to grow as a key supplier of vehicles for global markets, which is only possible thanks to the dedication and high-quality work of our team members here,” said Shigeki Terashi, president and COO of Toyota Motor North America, Inc.

Production of Venzas for Russia and Ukraine start at Georgetown, Kentucky, in April. Toyota expects to export approximately 5,000 Venza crossovers to Russia and Ukraine during the first year of sales through a port in Brunswick, Georgia.

“We expect the export of Venza vehicles to Russia and Ukraine will help further solidify our U.S. manufacturing base,” added COO Terashi.

Last year, Toyota shipped a record 124,000 U.S.-assembled vehicles to 21 global markets. Overall, exports from the U.S. increased by 45% over 2011, the maker noted.

Russia is now one of the fastest growing automotive markets in the world, last year becoming the single largest national market in Europe for new vehicles.  Several major automakers, among them General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Renault/Nissan, have established plants in Russia, in part to sidestep the country’s  relatively strict local content and local production rules.

Toyota also has a plant in Russia, but still sees the need to import some models it doesn’t plan to build in the heart of the old Soviet Union.

Venza is just one of many models Toyota is now exporting.  The list includes the Avalon sedan that is also produced in Georgetown, as well as Sequoia SUVs and Sienna minivans coming out of Princeton, Indiana, along with Tacoma and Tundra pickups from San Antonio, Texas. Shipments of the Camry sedan-based wagon to China from Kentucky are also planned, with details to be announced soon, Toyota officials said.

Ironically, exports of some Japanese-made products has been driven by the new trade pact between the U.S. and South Korea.  But another key driver has been the strong yen, a factor that has led to a broad hollowing out of automotive production in Japan in recent years.

Both Honda and Nissan have expanded overseas shipments of North American-produced autos three decades after opening their first “transplant” factories in the region to meet U.S. demand.

Honda exported more than 100,000 vehicles to markets outside of North America last year, and every Honda auto plant in North America now builds at least some cars and trucks for export, including operations in Ohio, Alabama and Indiana. Exported models go to 40 different countries and include the Honda Civic, Accord, CR-V, Pilot, Odyssey, Crosstour and Ridgeline, along with the Acura ILX, TL, RDX and MDX.

Nissan exports to more than 110 countries from plants in the U.S. and Mexico. In 2012, the automaker produced about 1.3 million units in the U.S. and Mexico, of which 304,914 left the region for other markets. A total of 36,295 vehicles were exported to countries outside North America from Nissan’s U.S. plants.

But a significantly larger total, 268,819 were exported from Mexico. That country has become an even more significant exporter, in part due to low wages but also as a result of signing an extensive range of trade agreements with partners around the world. That has encouraged a number of makers to set up shop South of the Border in recent years, including Audi which will soon open up its first North American plant in Mexico and use it as a global export base.

Mercedes also is considering a Mexican site for its second North American plant and, as has reported, may open the facility alongside the new Nissan manufacturing complex going into Aguascalientes.

But that’s not likely to reduce the role of the German maker’s plant near Birmingham, Alabama where as much as half of the M- and G-Class vehicles are earmarked for markets outside North America. When the next-generation Mercedes C-Class launches at the expanding facility it is expected to join the export list.

“In the future, we will have more competition between plants,” Daimler AG Board Member Thomas Weber recently said, noting that even U.S.-made Mercedes engines will likely be used on assembly lines around the world.

BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, South Caroline, meanwhile, produces over 1,000 vehicles each day and is the exclusive global supplier of X3, X5 and X6 Sports-Activity Vehicles. The Spartanburg plant is expected to produce more than 300,000 vehicles this year and will export approximately 70% of those vehicles to more than 130 countries.

Ironically, Detroit manufacturers have been lagging on the export front but there are signs that are changing, all three increasing their tallies. Chrysler has been especially aggressive, in large part because of its expanding relationship with Italian partner Fiat.

Sergio Marchionne, who serves as CEO for both makers, has been trying to rationalize the Fiat/Chrysler global footprint. That means a worldwide market for U.S.-made Jeeps, while products such as the Chrysler 300 sedan will be shipped to Europe and sold there under the Lancia badge.

The Jeep plant along the Detroit riverfront was even supposed to produce a new SUV for the Maserati brand but that plan was scrubbed because the factory can barely meet U.S. demand for the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Instead, Maserati will have to build its new Levante in Italy for export worldwide.

Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.

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