Commentary

Some think Toyota stole the “green” image right out from under Honda, which was first with hybrid/electric vehicles but places no higher than second in environmental friendliness in the minds of many consumers.

Now the Japanese auto maker may be trying to pick Detroit’s pocket when it comes to the mantle of “America’s car company.”

Toyota’s late-February announcement it would build a new assembly plant in Mississippi seemed orchestrated to send a clear message back to the Big Three: Don’t try to step up political pressure to stop us, because we’ve got plenty of firepower of our own.

Talk has been building in some circles as to whether new protectionist measures are needed in the U.S. to prevent foreign auto makers, in particular the Japanese and fast-gaining South Koreans, from taking too much ground here.

Toyota has been feeling most of the pressure, in part because of its well-publicized pursuit of the world’s top-seller title now held by General Motors, a crown it could capture this year. In the U.S., it passed Chrysler as the third-biggest auto maker in 2006, and so far this year it trails No.2 Ford by less than 4,000 vehicles.

Even Honda has been critical of Toyota for importing too many vehicles – a record 1.18 million last year, or 46.4% of its U.S. sales mix. Honda, in contrast, produced in North America 77% of the vehicles it sold here, although it, too, had record imports.

Toyota also has landed on the radar with the launch of its all-new Tundra, considered its first legitimate attempt to go head-to-head against the Big Three in the fullsize pickup market, Detroit’s last bastion of profitability.

But the Japanese auto maker appeared to be answering back with its announcement of a new plant to build Highlander cross/utility vehicles near Tupelo, MS, beginning in 2010.

Although it is standard operating procedure to load up these events with politicos, Toyota pulled out some extra stops, simulcasting the press conference from Mississippi and the nation’s capital and parading a pair of Bush administration officials past the podium.

Also present was John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers. But in introducing him, Toyota Motor North America President Jim Press put the accent on Engler’s status as a former 3-term governor of Michigan, as if to emphasize Toyota’s political connections even in the Big Three-dominated Midwest.

Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott summed up the day’s sentiment when he told Toyota officials, “We are warriors on your behalf. I assure you we will look after your interests.”

If Detroit didn’t already know it, the Toyota event signals the major shift under way in the industry’s political clout.

Should General Motors, Ford and Chrysler want any policy help at all, they may have to cozy up a little closer to these new domestic manufacturers, such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai, and find some common ground.

Because it may be that not all of America – and certainly not all of Washington – agree any more on just what constitutes an American auto maker.

dzoia@wardsauto.com