Toyota Motor Corp. will shift gears and build its Prius hybrid-electric vehicle at a new plant in Mississippi, instead of the Highlander cross/utility vehicle.

Toyota will begin production of the hot-selling HEV beginning in second-half 2010.

The auto maker had planned to make the Highlander CUV at the Blue Springs, MS, plant starting in late 2009, then delayed the opening until spring 2010.

Toyota has been chronically short of Prius inventory, ranked 9th among Ward’s best-selling U.S. passenger-cars, hampering sales.

Prius deliveries fell 25.5% last month and were down 3.2% through June, despite rising fuel prices that are driving customers toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Toyota has debated building the Prius in the U.S., its best-selling market, for years.

Recent media reports have said the auto maker’s joint venture plant with General Motors Corp. in California, New United Motor Mfg. Inc. in Fremont, likely would be the site of U.S. Prius production.

Toyota says it now will build the Highlander at its Princeton, IN, plant, moving all Tundra output to its San Antonio, TX, plant.

The Highlander will start production in Indiana in fall 2009, while fullsize-pickup builds will be consolidated in Texas beginning next spring.

Additionally, Toyota says beginning in August it will suspend for three months production of the Tundra and fullsize Sequoia SUV at Princeton, all Tundra production in San Antonio and output of the engines for the Tundra and Sequoia at its Toyota Motor Mfg. Alabama Inc. plant in Huntsville.

San Antonio was set to close for 14 non-consecutive days between June and October, as stocks of the Tundra pile up amid weakening sales of large vehicles.

“The introduction of the Highlander at Toyota Motor Mfg. Indiana Inc. and the consolidation of Tundra production at Toyota Motor Mfg. Texas Inc. are intended to increase efficiencies at both plants and to achieve steady plant-utilization rates,” Toyota says in a statement.

During the August-November downtime in Alabama, Indiana and Texas, Toyota says workers will engage in training to “cultivate employees” with a long-term aim to further increase productivity at the auto maker’s North American plants.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com