Toyota Motor Corp., struggling to meet U.S. demand and facing a possible political backlash over its imports from Japan, may build as many as five North American assembly plants in the next 10 years, according to people familiar with the plans.

The Japanese automaker will build at least one factory in the southeastern U.S. and one in Mexico, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the company hasn't discussed the matter publicly.

Five more plants would give Toyota 12 in North America, about the same number Ford Motor Co. will have after its current round of closings. Toyota's North American plants include New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, a joint venture with General Motors Corp. Based on Toyota's recent investments, five factories would create about 10,000 jobs and cost $5 billion.

"We're doing right now a fairly in-depth study for 2015," Jim Lentz, Toyota's executive vice president of U.S. sales, said in an interview at this week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. He declined to say whether any new plants would be built.

Toyota's U.S. sales surged 13 percent last year to 2.54 million vehicles, pushing its market share to a record 15.4 percent from 13.3 percent a year earlier. Toyota overtook DaimlerChrysler AG for third place in U.S.sales behind General Motors and Ford. It may pass GM as the world's biggest automaker this year.

The company's North American capacity last year was 1.


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5 million vehicles, and it brought in 1.18 million cars and trucks from Japan to meet demand. The imports broke Toyota's 20-year-old industry record and accounted for 46 percent of U.S. sales.

Irv Miller, vice president of corporate communications for Toyota's U.S. sales unit at its U.S. headquarters in Torrance, declined to give any details on the company's internal planning.

"Are we studying new capacity? Of course," Miller said. He said "the market is going to determine" how many plants are built.

American depositary receipts for the Toyota City, Japan- based automaker fell 65 cents to $128.78 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading Thursday. They've gained 21 percent in the past 12 months. GM shares climbed 41 percent in the same period, and Ford's fell 13 percent.

Toyota executives' concern about U.S. criticism of its mounting imports of Japanese-built autos is fueling the urgency behind production plans, the people said. Toyota also wants to limit exposure to currency fluctuations against Japan's yen by building more vehicles where they're sold, the people said.

Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, who became chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee when his party regained control of Congress in November, said in a Dec. 22 statement that Toyota has advantages over GM because of Japan's state-run health-care and pension systems. Toyota also benefits from a Japanese government that "manipulates the yen for strategic advantage," he said.

Adam Benson, a Dingell aide in Washington, declined to comment Wednesday.

Toyota has six assembly plants in North America and one under construction. It also plans to build Camry sedans at one assembly line at Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.'s Subaru plant in Lafayette, Ind. The Wall Street Journal reported on Jan. 4 that Toyota had narrowed the location for an eighth plant to three to five sites in the southern U.S.

GM will have 24 North American plants after it completes shutdowns planned through 2008, spokesman Dan Flores said.

Toyota's growth study is aimed at creating "a good understanding of where we see the market, what kind of volumes, what kind of vehicles," Lentz, the U.S. sales executive, said. "Based on all that, what does our production footprint need to look like in North America?"

In November, Toyota opened a $1.3 billion plant in San Antonio to make full-size Tundra pickups. The company adds a plant in Woodstock, Ontario, next year to make RAV4 sport-utility vehicles, and is expanding a Tacoma pickup plant near Tijuana, Mexico.

By the end of 2008, the new facilities and use of the Subaru plant will boost annual North American capacity by a third to 2 million, and represent an investment of more than $2 billion. 

In addition to the Fremont, San Antonio and Tijuana factories, Toyota's North American plants are in Georgetown, Ky.; Princeton, Ind.; and Cambridge, Ontario.

"Toyota is undergoing a stretch of engineering resources, and it's very difficult," Yukitoshi Funo, chief executive officer of Toyota's North American operations, said in an interview at this week's Detroit auto show.

Toyota plans to sell 9.34 million vehicles worldwide in 2007, up 6 percent from a year earlier. GM's global sales fell 0.8 percent to 9.10 million.

With reporting by Bill Koenig and Jeff Green in Detroit and Alan Katz in Paris.