Which Way Is Up? The Future of Toyota Design

Toyota has unveiled two concept vehicles for all the world to see — and they couldn’t be more different.

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The President and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp, Akio Toyoda, took the reigns of the Japanese automaker in 2009 — a time when Toyota desperately needed to turn the brand around. They’d come off a rough stretch. During the economic downturn of 2008, Toyota sales took a beating. Then, their reputation got pummeled with the whole unintended acceleration mess and subsequent recall. And as a face to all the internal disaster, everything in their lineup in the late ’00s was as dull as dirt. Toyota needed a new navigator, and they took Toyoda as their man.

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Since the transfer of power, Toyota’s offerings have changed dramatically. The Avalon no longer looks like a sled for the geriatric. The new Highlander is one of the best-looking large crossovers on the market. And even we wouldn’t be that embarrassed to tool around the streets with the current Yaris, which now looks more like a pocket racer than transportation for Hello Kitty.

Toyoda uses the Japanese expression waku-doki, the idea that cars should “elevate the pulse”, not deaden the senses.

But the most dramatic changes came in the form of the new Corolla and Camry — big sellers that didn’t really requires sales assistance. The last Camry was the best-selling car of 2014, with 428,606 units sold, destroying the Honda Accord by nearly 40K units. The previous-generation Corolla sold 302,180 cars, taking second place in the 2013 small sedan sales battle. Clearly, both Toyota cars are evidence that you don’t have to quicken the pulses to get people to buy.

But Akio Toyoda cared about more than just sales. He wanted to reinvigorate the brand, and he created rakish new redesigns of his bread-and-butter cars. No longer does the Corolla look like a Camry afterthought. And the lines of the new Camry are slick and aggressive, looking nothing like the previous-generation cars despite the fact that the upgrade was only a mid-cycle refresh, not an all-out new car. Toyoda uses the Japanese expression waku-doki, the idea that cars should “elevate the pulse”, not deaden the senses. We’re not convinced Toyoda has accomplished this across the board, but he’s certainly made headway. Still, it takes more than doing a remake of existing cars to make inroads in redefining a brand.

Toyota’s reputation as the staid family brand is deeply entrenched, and that’s a high hurdle to overcome for Calty, Toyota’s famous design studio. To this end, over the past two years, Toyota has unveiled two concept vehicles for all the world to see — and they couldn’t be more different.

The FT-1 is a sinewy race-inspired sports car that wowed the crowds and the automotive media at the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The long hood, the deep-set air intakes, side scoops and that lean, muscular silhouette made everyone wonder: “Is that a Toyota?” Reminiscent of the fantastic Supra from the ’90s, it was Toyota Calty Design Research’s pride and joy. It’s the best-looking concept car from Toyota in recent memory, and Chief Designer Alex Shen more than intimated that the FT-1 was an indication there’ll be more emotional products from Toyota in the near future.

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On the flip side, Toyota also released the Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) Concept at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show and then, at the 2014 L.A. Auto Show, the near-production FCV Mirai. Where the FT-1 is visually stunning, the Mirai looks like a cross between an electric shaver and a hair dryer. Much of the design is functional, and the very dramatic air intakes on the fascia help channel maximum amounts of oxygen into the Mirai’s fuel stack (working with the hydrogen fuel to generate electricity), but it gave it the looks of walrus. If the FT-1 is Jessica Alba, the Mirai’s Rosie O’Donnell. Calty designed the car to reduce the drag coefficient to a slippery 0.29; but by contrast, the Mercedes-Benz CLA Class nets an even better 0.23 drag coefficient and looks good doing it.

The Mirai confounds. If this is the future — are we supposed to be excited?

Granted, the Mirai falls in a similar segment as its older and hugely successful brother, the Prius, in that it’s environmentally focused. The Mirai runs on hydrogen that’s converted to electricity, emitting only water vapor as exhaust. As a hydrogen vehicle it will crush electric vehicle range, netting nearly 300 miles on its two tanks of hydrogen fuel. It can also can be refueled in only a few minutes, as opposed to needing an overnight charge like a plug-in electric. Obviously, it’s a uniquely performing car and, as a result, it should also look aesthetically different from mainstream cars. But while the car can look futuristic, it’s certainly not handsome. It brings into question Akio Toyoda’s intention for the brand. This is not an “elevate the pulse” design. This car gets the blood pumping at the speed of molasses.

Toyota did good work to make their newer cars more dramatic, eye-catching and inspiring. But the Mirai confounds. If this is the future — are we supposed to be excited? The Mirai is slated for 2016 production, a confirmation coming well before any news on the gorgeous FT-1. If Toyota wants to break free from the somnambulist stylings of its past, the design of the Mirai is a step backward. And green-lighting and fast-tracking the car sends the wrong message about the Toyota design and their future concepts. Design and brand perception matters, and Toyota needs to continue to work toward instilling the thrill of motoring in drivers. That all starts with inspired design.

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