MEXICO CITY – The streets of this frightening metropolis of 20 million people were full of Nissan cabs, Volkswagen and Chevrolet Suburbans commuter cars packed with VIPs and their incredible bodyguards.
But Toyota? Not so much. Perhaps an occasional truck or a Sienna minivan in the middle class districts of the capital and its suburbs.
Today, however, the Toyota Prius sightings are common. It is exempt from state regulations that curb cars during smog warnings, gets a huge mileage in a nation that has just finished gasoline subsidies and is age-old in space.
So far this year, Prius is able to distribute all competitors in the luxury segment that in a developing nation such as Mexico include Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and VW Passat.
The sudden visibility of the Prius is symbolic of Toyota’s greatest ambitions in Mexico. It is now the No. 4 brand name for years as a minor player, and is more than doubling its modest production footprint.
“It’s been really a great year in terms of sales and it was also a great year for us in terms of production,” said Luis Lozano, director of government and business in the Toyota de Mexico sector, at Automotive News last month. “We are growing in pickup and this reflects Toyota’s interest in Mexico.”
Toyota’s exclusive Mexican plant near Tijuana is in the final phase of Tacoma’s expanse expansion to 160,000 vehicles a year by 100,000, said Mike Bafan, chairman of Toyota de Mexico, who oversees production.
The second Toyota assembly plant in the country is under construction in the central state of Guanajuato. It was anticipated to make the Corolla, but that changed in August when the company said it would make the compact sedan in a new American plant with Mazda and refocus Guanajuato to do even more Tacomas at the end of 2019 or early 2020 .
“One of the things we’ve been doing is surfing a very dynamic market recently, and demand for trucks and SUVs is on the rise on both sides of the border,” Bafan said.
Toyota arrived relatively late in Mexico, creating a shop 15 years ago. The roots of Detroit 3, VW and Nissan date back to at least half a century.
But Toyota’s timing was good. Automatic sales in Mexico have doubled over the past six years to a record 1.6 million in 2016. And Mexico is a critical partner in the automotive industry in North America.
Mexico is today the car market no. 12 in the world, producer no. 7 of light vehicles and exporter no. 4, according to industry figures.
Toyota is breaking its sales records almost every month. It has acquired 6.8 percent of the market by September this year, improving its 6.5 percent share throughout 2016, according to the Mexican Automobile Distributors Association.
Over the last decade, Toyota has almost doubled the volume of sales, hitting 105,000 vehicles last year, even when new arrivals shake the status quo. Hyundai opened its commercial network in 2014. Kia did it a year later.
By 2015, Toyota has abandoned two traditional drivers: Fiat Chrysler and Ford, according to the distributors’ association. Now it only goes to Nissan, General Motors and Volkswagen, all of them doing more models in Mexico.
Lozano said Toyota’s market growth was not derived from a certain global plan to reach a specific point on sales rankings.
As the brand filled the line, consolidated its sales base and focused customer experience year after year, sales grew.
That being said, Toyota intends to continue to add models and defend its market position as competition intensifies. “The strategy is to have competitive vehicles in all segments,” said Lozano.
The automaker is virtually present with 16 models currently, from the subcompact Yaris to the big Sequoia SUV. But new deals and options will be available next year, including a diesel engine for its compact pickup Hilux, which is the leader of the brand’s volume in Mexico, said Lozano.
Toyota will also import the C-HR, its first subcompact crossover, to hire the Honda HR-V, Chevy Trax and Nissan Kicks.
The remarkable increase in Prius sales from a few hundred vehicles a year at the beginning of the decade to about 4,600 so far this year pushed Toyota to import his younger brother, the Prius c.
Toyota’s market place will be tested as competition warms up and the sales plateau, as Mexico has gone through a huge growth spectrum. Inflation and interest rates are on the rise.