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.
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Whilst the Camry has withdrawn from the European market it’s not because of the car’s quantitative attributes.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.
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”.
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.
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.