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Japan auto plants temporarily shut down

March 16, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
The disaster in Japan has had a major impact on that country's auto industry, with all its plants temporarily shut down.

U.S. consumers will soon face a shortage of some new cars and parts.

Since gas prices have been going through the roof, fuel-efficient cars like the Toyota Prius have been moving off dealer lots relatively quickly. But in the wake of that disaster they may be even harder to find. Japanese plants that make them have been shut down. But experts say there are plenty of other popular Japanese vehicles that are virtually unaffected by the earthquake.

With the widespread destruction that covers parts of Japan -- the rolling blackouts and food shortages that plague much of the country -- it's no surprise the Japanese auto-manufacturing plants are not running. To conserve energy there Toyota says its plants will be down at least through March 22. Honda, Nissan and Mazda will be down until March 20.

"So far we have seen minimal impact on availability of products here in the U.S.," said Mike Michels, Toyota USA spokesman.

Those plant shutdowns though could soon create some headaches here in the States, where Japanese-made auto parts are commonly used in both foreign and domestic cars.

"Some of the companies that supply these parts could have some shipping difficulties whether they are shipping the parts out by airplane or by container ship," said a Consumer Reports representative.

Michels though, says Toyota's plants in Japan that make parts for North American production will be up and running Thursday. And he points out most of Toyota's top-selling vehicles don't come out of Japanese plants.

"More than 70 percent of the cars we sell here are made here in North America. So there's going to be no shortage," said Michels.

But automotive analysts say cars are coming up short on dealer lots. Many of the smaller, gas-sipping cars already in high demand because of soaring prices at the pump are shipped in from Japan.

"Like the Toyota Prius. Like the Honda Fit. The Insight. Small cars, hybrid vehicles come from Japan so we could feel a squeeze on some of those models," said Jessica Caldwell, a pricing analyst at Edmunds.com.

Caldwell doesn't foresee any dramatic Japanese car shortages on dealer lots, but says some dealers may be taking advantage of the situation and already boosting prices.

"Still be aggressive with pricing," said Caldwell. "I wouldn't necessarily buy the dealer's line of, 'Prices are going to go up, can't give you incentives, can't catch you a good deal.' Because that's not the case today and we don't know if that's the case ever."

Toyota says its vehicle inventories in the U.S. are actually above average right now. They point out that the three facilities involved in making and shipping the Prius in Japan are undamaged by the earthquake.