Theme: Japan – The Gentleman

It’s a peculiar entity, Toyota. More like a small landless nation than a company. It can produce remarkably effective entrants and also miss the mark in its own unique way. Nobody understands it. I try to.

2000 Toyota WillVi: www.carsensor.net
2000 Toyota WillVi. They don´t do much of this, do they?: http://www.carsensor.net

Like GM, Toyota is a sprawling enterprise, with operations all over the world and a large range of vehicles. Unlike GM, Toyota’s failures are seldom mystifying acts of dunderheadness. Even the least successful Toyotas are quality machines which demonstrate the relentless application of diligence. In contrast, GM cars can be entertainingly terrible which can be put down to missing diligence. What Toyota can possibly match the legendary Pontiac Aztek for its florid incompetence? The Solstice’s boot held only a spare wheel. Which Lexus failed as spectacularly as the Cimarron or Catera?

Whilst the Camry has withdrawn from the European market it’s not because of the car’s quantitative attributes. Toyota more than makes up for this defeat with a reliable stream of Corollas, Amazons, Versos, Aygos, and Yarises. Cadillac on the other hand made several attempts to crack the UK, from the Seville to the BLS and the cars seemed to have been devised without anyone showing the least insight into UK consumer preferences.

One imagines the automotive equivalent of early attempts at flight: a man holding a big wing falling directly off his launch pad. Not Toyota. The Camry did at one stage have a small but steady clientele and while demand fell it was not because the car was itself a bad thing or especially materially deficient, more a good car too few people wanted. You could imagine people being quite satisfied with a free Camry; a free Seville would probably be homeless after half a year.

2009 Toyota Avensis
That´s more like it. 2009 Toyota Avensis – www-mobile.de

Toyota has also thrived in the US, a very demanding market, with cars made for that market that steadily and impressively find buyers year after year. GM and Ford have had mixed success with Europe: losing a lot of money more often than not and showing even less capacity to field top-tier entrants outside their normal price range. If Lexus is not a resounding success in Europe it has not been the disaster that Cadillac and Saab have been for GM nor the marked disappointment Jaguar turned out to be for Ford. In the US, Lexus went from zero to a notable presence in the luxury car two decades, the same time GM took to kill Saab and several other storied brands. Honda, Mazda and Nissan have not emulated the Lexus trick with much success. Only Acura keeps a toe in the market and only then with cars that people still see as belonging to that nebulous world of “near luxury”.

Local colour: a Toyota in Erfurt, Germany.
Local colour: a Toyota in Erfurt, Germany.

For an interesting case of Toyota trying and failing let us recall the unremembered Corolla Type T Sport of 2002. It had the usual Toyota talents of solid build, excellent fabrics and a reasonable price. Yet even with the template of the Honda Civic R to use as a benchmark, the car garnered no fans. One wants to ask this: what part of the hot hatch formula did they not understand? Take a good car (a Corolla) and use some engineering wit to fit a steaming engine and tune the chassis and controls accordingly, paste on some flashy decals. Job done.

Ford, Honda, Renault and VW all offer cars constructed around this formula. Yet Toyota got it all wrong but not hilariously, incompetently wrong: more like a joke told badly. You can see why it might have been funny and the story is grammatical but no humour lingers. There’s no doubt Toyota has some excellent engineers and some world-class marketing capability. An enduring aspect of its culture prevents its decision makers from letting go, letting their hair down and going for it.

2000 Cadillac Seville STS: conceptcarz.com
2000 Cadillac Seville STS. Nearly indigestible: conceptcarz.com

The potential is enormous. Is it not an easier task for Toyota to add fun to a reliable car than it is to add reliability to a fun car? Alfa Romeos have majored on this for decades but fall down time after time with crumby execution. Imagine if Toyota did some number crunching on a 75 or Sud and sprinkled some of that charisma on an Avensis. That would make the perfect entertaining saloon, no? Or imagine if they drew a little inspiration from the driver involvement of the better BMWs. They could sell a lot more cars that way, wouldn’t you agree? Yet Toyota never follow this path, as if afraid that these qualities will pollute the deep down seriousness of their way.

And I return now to the idea of Toyota as landless country: it has a culture and manner of doing things which draws people willing to work in that way. The “nation of Toyota” aculturises new citizens in their corporate village. There may even be a leader who wants Toyota to be more than about good warranties and solid build. Why does it not happen? The corporate culture is too well-established to push through products without the traditional values affecting the character of the final cars. It’s not a serious problem: Toyota makes vast amounts of money.

The day Toyota ever does manage to apply some charisma to its leading models is the day everyone else ought to be afraid. Who would buy a fun-to-drive car made by someone else if Toyota sold one that also happened to be made to their high-standards? Could it be that Toyota is holding back, simply being nice to the other marques who have never quite got a handle on production processes and consistency. Maybe Toyota isn’t dull so much as very, very gentlemanly.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

11 thoughts on “Theme: Japan – The Gentleman”

  1. It seems as if le Quement had taken a long look at this WillVi for his own Megane.

    Further evidence to drive home your point: Toyota is killing Scion in the US.

    1. The 2001 WiLL VS looked like the car which replaced that Megane in 2008; indeed it looked like just about every C segment car from around that time, despite appearing 7-8 years before.

      The later Scion venture could be seen a very watered down version of WiLL for the US market, rather than the Japanese domestic market. Looking back, WiLL seems a most odd exercise. Only a few thousand of the cars were made, and they had relatively little commonality with other Toyota products.

      It seems that this ‘exclusivity’ was deliberate, rather than the result of poor sales. I can’t imagine the involvement in the WiLL project (other businesses provided such things as beer, toiletries, and fax machines) made Toyota any money.

      What were they thinking?

    2. Toyota’s domestic market share had fallen below 40% and the company deemed itself out of touch with the younger generation of buyers – that’s why WiLL was created. The result may have been a case of ‘too much, too early’, but one can guess that Toyota learned a few lessons during this enterprise that were then employed on behalf of the core range.

  2. Enjoyed reading that. I know that it was Nissan but this article really reminded me of what happened when a major Japanese manufacturer teamed up with Alfa. I know the Arna is a soft target and I’m sure Toyota would make a better fist of it, starting with one of their products and trying to add sparkle rather than vice versa. I also think Toyota’s reputation has covered up some pretty shoddy product. The mark 1 Yaris is a really unpleasant place to be yet it sold by the bucket load. The fact that no-one has ever consistently produced consistently reliable, attractive cars with personality and charisma maybe discourages Toyota from taking the leap that (if successful) would surely send their profits into the stratosphere.

    1. Thanks – imagine a charismatic Toyota. It would be a silver bullet, killer product. Even if Toyota selected a few halo models the effect would be stunning to behold. I am thinking of a Toyota Corolla with suspension tuned by Parry-Jones and an interior styled by an Italian.

  3. Toyota is trying hard to create more ’emotional’ products. The new Prius is the (crazy) result of what are basically good intentions.

  4. The C-HR is promising, at least in the visuals. Distinctive and futuristic, in a rather insect-like way, and ‘hangs together’ far better than the Prius or Mirai, which just look wilfully odd.

    Last ’emotional’ Toyotas? I’d say the 1999 Celica T230, and MR2 W30. Both were the end of their lines because Toyota management decided the production capacity could be put to better use making things which could be sold more profitably, and in bigger numbers.

    Some might add the GT86, but I wouldn’t. It’s like driving a coal cellar – a horrible thing.

  5. Richard, could it be that you’d forgotten about Infiniti? Like the cars and their styling or not, but Ghosn, de Nuysschen et al have certainly created a proper brand that’s at least as clearly defined as Lexus.

  6. Yes, i like the C-HR too. It seems to be a much better car than the Nissan Juke – a car without virtues that will be soon in a few years a used car, very cheap but still hard to sell…

    The C-HR is the real successor of the first generation RAV4. One of the first SUVs with a monocoque bodyshell and a design ready to do a trip to Jurassic Park or to Burger King. But not to transport shot deers or boars….
    One of the few Toyotas that was able to seduce many people by its look. And it is a Toyota, built with many parts of the Corolla. So you could buy your new adventure car without any risks.And without paying high bills at the gas station, because it was a small car – not longer than a Opel Adam nowadays..

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