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Toyota says time is right for Venza

GEORGETOWN — In the face of a struggling economy and crumbling automotive sector, Toyota celebrated the launch of its new Venza on Monday at the Georgetown plant that is the exclusive producer of the vehicle.

"We believe we have the right vehicle at the right time," boasted plant president Steve St. Angelo to a crowd of hundreds of employees gathered in a tent outside the company's sprawling plant.

Despite the economic crunch, it's the perfect time to launch a new product, said Toyota Motor Sales Senior Vice President Don Esmond.

"You want a product that's going to address today's needs," he said before the event. "New product always drives the market."

"We've got more Internet traffic in Venza than any product we've had (except) probably Prius," he added.

Esmond said there's a lot of potential in the long term, perhaps more than the goal of 60,000 to 70,000 in annual production and sales.

Haig Stoddard, an automotive analyst with IHS Global Insight, questioned that forecast, though, saying he expects sales of around 30,000 to 40,000 "in this climate."

"You couldn't say this is the best time to debut any vehicle," he said. "But going forward when things start to turn around, they'll have a newer vehicle out that should help in the long run."

The Venza introduced an important first for Toyota in North America. It was the first vehicle whose production process was planned at a plant, rather than at Toyota's design and engineering firms in Japan. And while it wasn't the first, it's one of a select group of vehicles designed exclusively in North America for sale here.

Michihiko Sato, the vehicle's chief engineer at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the vehicle has received "so many positive comments" during preview sessions with media and critics.

The crossover is expected to hit stores in December with price tags ranging from $25,975 to $29,250.

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