Toyota is a company going from strength to strength and could overtake General Motors as the world's biggest vehicle producer this year. At the company's recent opening of a new Toyota European R&D facility, Tokuichi Uranishi, Toyota's global sales and marketing VP set out some details of Toyota's global vision. Chris Wright caught up with him.

It's pretty much expected that Toyota will take over from General Motors as the number one purveyor of automobiles any time now.

It's not far behind in terms of sales, but already light years ahead in terms of cash in hand, unhampered by the General's massive pension and healthcare commitments back home on the range.

In typical Japanese style, Toyota executives are supremely modest when it comes to blowing their own trumpet. "We have not so much a long term plan but a global vision," says Executive vice president Tokuichi Uranishi, head of Toyota's global sales and marketing.

That global vision includes a worldwide market share of around 15 percent by 2010 with growth at home and in emerging markets, but the other big regions are not being ignored.

Toyota Motor Europe has just opened its new €130 million research and development centre in Brussels, hot on the heels of its new joint venture car plant with PSA Peugeot Citroen which began assembly last year in the Czech Republic.

There are more plans in the General's back yard as well. Uranishi said Toyota will almost certainly utilize spare capacity at Subaru's Lafayette plant in Indiana.

Subaru has a 100,000 production capacity in the United States and has some spare. "We will be looking to see how best we can use the additional capacity," said Uranishi during the opening ceremony for the new R & D centre.

He confirmed the companies are studying a plan to build either a car or SUV at the plant where Subaru hopes to offset the loss of a small Saab crossover based on the Tribeca that was to be produced in Indiana.

General Motors cancelled that plan last October when it sold its 20 percent stake in Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., Subaru's parent company.  Toyota later acquired 8.7 percent of Fuji Heavy.

There is also the possibility of increasing production further. The plant, originally a joint venture between Subaru and Isuzu, has capacity for 240,000 units but Subaru currently uses less than 50 percent of this.

Isuzu sold its 49 percent stake to Fuji Heavy in 2003 but continued to build its Rodeo pickup and Axiom SUV there until July 2004. Subaru currently builds Tribeca at Lafayette along with the Legacy/Outback and Baja cars.

Uranishi added: "We are also looking at how Toyota and Subaru can work together on vehicles and technology in the future, but in the short term additional North American capacity is of most interest to us."

Uranishi said Toyota was also interested in producing a low-cost sedan for emerging markets, very much like the Logan, a collaboration between Renault and its Romanian affiliate, Dacia.

"I would not want to compromise Toyota's reputation as a technology and environmental leader but in Daihatsu we have a sister company that is very good at producing low cost vehicles. There is a demand for vehicles such as the Logan in emerging markets and there is big potential in the segment - we are very interested in it."

Uranishi, however, ruled out introducing Scion as a third brand to Europe to help lower the age profile of customers to the Toyota and Lexus brands. "Scion is a brand for young people but it would not be particularly cheap so we have no plans to introduce it in Europe."

Toyota Motor Europe will increase its purchasing spend with European suppliers to Euro 4.5 billion by the end of 2007, up from Euro 4bn last year and just Euro 1.2bn in 1999.

European manufacturing chief Alan Jones said: "Our suppliers are key partners. Around 60 percent of the cars we sell in Europe are made in Europe and over 90 percent of the content of those vehicles comes from Europe - from our engine and transmission plants in UK and Poland but also from our European suppliers."

TME has 289 suppliers based in 451 European locations. As well as the Brussels headquarters, TME also has eight production centres in UK, France, Turkey, Poland and Czech Republic, its ED2 design centre in the South of France, Formula One HQ in Germany plus national marketing and sales companies in 48 countries and nearly 2,900 dealers.

Jones, TME's executive vice president manufacturing, said the new R+D centre would also bring together many other elements such as purchasing, technology and design which would be of great benefit to the automaker's European manufacturing operations.

The centre's main responsibility is to ensure technological developments are matched to European driving conditions, standards, legislations and tastes.

"Europe is the biggest market in the world for diesel engines and the work carried out at the new facility on these engines will be very significant for the future," Jones added.

Belgium was chosen for the new R+D centre because "we like it here," said Jones. "Our European head office is in Brussels, we have parts and logistics centres in Diest and Zeebrugge, we have over 2,600 employees in Belgium and our investment here is around Euro 418 million.

"It also offered exactly what we needed: A location attractive to potential employees, a highly skilled workforce, good local universities and institutions plus we are close to our manufacturing centres and suppliers."

TME has achieved record sales in each of the past nine years selling 964,000 vehicles in Europe last year relating to a market share of 5 percent.

Uranishi said this year Toyota hopes to pass the 1 million mark and reach 1.2 million by 2010 - a market share of 6.5 percent.

Chris Wright

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