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Toyota, Honda, Nissan shut plants as big earthquake hits Japan

Fri, 11 Mar 2011

Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. suspended production at plants in Japan today and were assessing damage after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast, triggering a tsunami and shaking buildings as far away as Tokyo.

The shutdown could affect exports to the United States of such cars as the Toyota Yaris sedan, the Scion XB and Scion XD, as well as the Honda Fit small car, the Accord sedan and CR-V crossover. The temblor also hit production of the Acura and Infiniti lineups.

Toyota, the world's largest carmaker, said it evacuated workers from several factories in the quake zone. Toyota has two parts plants in northern Japan and it has two affiliates, Kanto Auto Works, Ltd. and Central Motors Co., that assemble small cars in the region.

The immediate status of those plants was still being evaluated, Toyota spokesman Dion Corbett said. "We are still trying to get information from them," he said.

At least one person died at Honda's r&d facility, and fires erupted at two Nissan plants.

Spotty phone coverage inside the quake zone made it difficult for the companies to get a clear picture of how extensive the damage was. Authorities in northern Japan were just beginning to sift through the region's wreckage and tally the death toll when darkness fell.

The quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time off the coast of Sendai north of the capital, the Japan Meteorological Agency said. The tremor also triggered a tsunami that flooded coastal areas. Television footage showed cars being washed down flood zones like toys and large capsized cargo ships tossed sideways and jumbled together and pushed inland.

The main airport in Sendai was transformed into an island surrounded by flood plains.

Aftershocks, many strong, rocked the region for hours afterward.

Toyota is one of the few Japanese automakers with a large manufacturing presence in northern Japan, a region it wants to make a center for small car production. In January, its Central Motors subsidiary opened an new assembly plant just an hour's drive away from Sendai. That plant, with a capacity of 120,000 vehicles, makes the Yaris small car for export to the United States.

Toyota's Kanto Auto Works has another assembly plant in the neighboring prefecture of Iwate. That plant also makes small cars, including the Yaris sedan, the Scion XB and Scion XD for export. The Toyota parent company has two parts plants in the region as well.

"As for production from here out, we will make a decision after we get a handle on the situation," Corbett said, about when the northern plants would reopen.

Toyota plants near the company's headquarters in Toyota City, in central Japan, had resumed production as normal after brief shutdowns, Corbett said. There were no reports of injuries from those factories. Possible damage was still being assessed.

Toyota was also confirming damage at its suppliers. Toyota Boshoku Corp. and Denso Corp., two of Toyota's biggest parts makers, both reportedly suffered some plant damage.

Honda shut down two assembly plants immediately after the temblor, spokesman Keitaro Yamamoto said. Honda's Suzuka plant in central Japan soon resumed production.

But the company's Sayama plant, north of Tokyo and closer to the epicenter, remained shut down by late Friday evening. Yamamoto said Honda headquarters was having difficulty contacting its plants. The Sayama plant makes several U.S.-bound models.

It sends the Fit small car, the Accord sedan and the CR-V crossover to the United States, as well as the Acura RL and Acura TSX, Yamamoto said.

The company was unsure when production would resume. But Honda would close its r&d center and the Sayama and Suzuka factories at least through Monday, Yamamoto said.

At Honda's r&d center in Tochigi prefecture, one person died and 30 were injured when the quake toppled a wall at the facility's cafeteria. No other injuries were reported.

Nissan Motor Co. also suspended operations at factories throughout eastern Japan. Small fires broke out at two assembly plants, including the factory producing the Infiniti M sedan and GT-R sports car. They were quickly extinguished, the company said.

The company also evacuated employees from its technology center south of Tokyo after the power was cut off there.

Nissan said plants would stay closed over the weekend. It will decide whether to resume production on Monday after assessing the quake damage.

By Hans Greimel- Automotive News