8 things a Toyota-Mazda plant in Alabama means for new car shoppers

January 10, 2018

Toyota and Mazda announced on Wednesday plans to build at assembly plant in Huntsville, Alabama. In addition to thousands of jobs that will be created by the first new car assembly plant to be announced in the U.S. during the Trump administration, the plant has numerous ramifications for new car buyers across the country.

Mazda and Toyota entered into a partnership last year that sees each acquiring a slice of the other, but details beyond the joint-venture assembly plant are murky.

The plant will be the first in the U.S. for Mazda, which recently began building its own cars—and some under contract for Toyota—in Mexico. Toyota, meanwhile, has numerous plants spread across the American southeast and Midwest, including an assembly plant in Tupelo, Mississippi, and an engine plant in Huntsville just 14 miles away from the new Toyota-Mazda facility.

So far, the two brands have remained mum on the subject. But that's all likely to change.

Here's a look at some of the key talking points about this plant and just how they may affect consumers. 

1. A massive investment in a growing area: Reports last fall indicated that the two Japanese automakers will split what's estimated to be a $1.6 billion investment equally in the plant. By the numbers, that works out to about 300,000 cars built annually, an opening date in 2021, and peak facility employment of up to 4,000 workers. 

It's not entirely clear what cars the plant will build, but Mazda crossovers and Toyota Corolla compact cars are a safe bet, at least in the short term. Before announcing its tie-up with Mazda, Toyota had planned to build Corollas in Mexico for export to the U.S.

2. An advanced plant: Limestone County presents the automakers with an opportunity to build a plant from the ground-up. It's possible that the brands will take a cookie-cutter approach, but it's unlikely. Instead, the plant will probably be state-of-the-art with the materials, resources, and assembly techniques required to build electrified, self-driving cars. For consumers, that means a big step forward for both brands.

3. Toyota Tacoma moves to Mexico: Toyota is already in the process of building a new factory in Guanajuato, Mexico, where it had intended to manufacture the Corolla. In an effort to streamline distribution and management efforts, the automaker plans to flip-flop its compact car with its mid-size pickup. Of course, any move to Mexico hinges on NAFTA—and that's a touchy subject in Washington, Mexico City, and Ottawa these days.

4. Joint development of electric vehicle technology: You know it, we know it, Sergio Marchionne knows it: to remain competitive in the rapidly changing world of automotive tech, car companies need to collaborate. That's especially true when it comes to electric vehicles, which require developing new, energy-efficient technologies and rethinking decades of auto engineering. Toyota has done plenty of work in the field of electrification, most notably with its lineup of Prius hybrids. Mazda has barely dabbled in electrification, but with Toyota's help, it could catch up quickly.

4. The road to self-driving cars: Two of the biggest developments in the field of safety tech are vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-grid communications, which allow cars to talk to one another, to stop lights, and other infrastructure elements. Paired with self-driving technology, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure could play a huge role in making roads safer for motorists and pedestrians alike. Before that can happen, though, the technology needs to be developed, and the more collaboration there is on that front, the faster we're likely to see it deployed. 

6. Mazda goes mainstream: Mazda is a bit player in North America, at least in the grand scheme of things. Toyota sells about 10 times as many new cars here annually as Mazda does, so the new plant offers an opportunity for the brand to nearly double its sales within a couple of years. Of course, good products and good marketing are also a big part of any success story.

7. Growth at Toyota, too: We've seen hints of Mazda in Toyota's lineup. The Yaris iA subcompact sedan (known in 2016 as the Scion iA) is a world-market Mazda2 with a different badge. Mazda's engineers are exceptionally good at automotive enthusiast fundamentals like lightweight bodies, rev-happy engines, and quick, accurate steering systems. Their crown jewel for nearly three decades is the Miata roadster, a model revered by enthusiasts. Since Toyota's president (and family scion) Akio Toyoda is the brand's number one enthusiast, Mazda's engineering prowess may make itself known in far more cars soon.

8. Political score: There's no question that the Trump administration—and presumably the commander-in-chief himself—will latch onto the plant announcement. President Trump has called upon foreign automakers, particularly Toyota, to build more cars in the U.S. Certainly this plant is a coup for Alabama and the U.S. manufacturing base, but Toyota's plan to shift Tacoma production from Texas to Mexico doesn't hurt south of the border, either. For his part, Akio Toyoda has denied that the automaker has been influenced by the Trump administration.

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