The shift of power away from engineers delivered its first daring design in the futuristic, fin-tailed 2016 Prius. The latest is the 2018 Camry sedan, with its bold proportions and flared sheet metal.
At the Camry’s debut this month in Detroit, Toyoda asked the overcapacity crowd if the eighth-generation sedan was sexy or really sexy. It speaks to a dramatic, if risky, move from the ho-hum Toyota of old.
The key to the automaker’s styling push is a revamped vehicle-development strategy that elevates a new “product chief designer” to work alongside the chief engineer as equal partners in creating a car.
The idea would have been unthinkable at the world’s biggest automaker just a few years ago.
For decades, design was routinely sacrificed at the hands of Toyota’s production engineers, a coterie revered internally as “production gods” for their relentless pursuit of efficiency and the brutal veto power they wielded over any product flourish deemed too frivolous for the factory.
But Toyoda, in his own pursuit of sexy cars, has cut them down a notch.
Starting with the fourth-generation Prius, Toyota has overhauled how products are designed. The product chief designer was hatched as a kind of guardian of the styling studio’s true intent, shepherding it from the day of the initial sketch to the car’s line-off.
The gambit could easily have gone awry.
Camry Chief Engineer Masato Katsumata, who also led development of the current, seventh-generation Camry, remembers the old days of the overlording production gods.
“Normally Toyota styling is not so sexy or three-dimensional. That’s because, I’m sorry to say, on the production engineering side, they do not take risks,” Katsumata said.
Quality control was job one, and complicated designs that necessitated complicated production methods needlessly raised the danger of defects.
Then there were the added costs of producing complex sheet-metal stamps.
“So then finally, the designer’s direction is pulled back,” Katsumata said.
It required pressure from the very top to break the mold.
“It basically comes down to someone at the top saying, “We have to do this.’ And giving design a much stronger voice than ever before in this company,” said Ian Cartabiano, the Toyota design veteran who penned the initial 2-inch sketch of the new Camry in his calendar journal.
“And now, because of Akio, design has a really strong voice,” he told Automotive News.
In Detroit, Toyoda conceded, “It’s no secret that I like to involve myself in the design process.”
But Cartabiano, chief designer at Toyota’s Calty studio in California, also played a key role in the change. He pushed the envelope as designer of some of Toyota’s most striking recent vehicles, including the Lexus LF-LC concept sport coupe and the Toyota C-HR subcompact crossover.
For the Camry, styling stewardship was entrusted to Akira Kubota as product chief designer. Cartabiano said Kubota faithfully fulfilled his duty of shepherding the original vision.
“We actually started with that 2-inch doodle,” Cartabiano said of his calendar book drawing. “And it became sketch, bigger sketch, bigger sketch, model. But that original intention followed all the way through to the cars.
“It was totally new for us,” he said. “There’s always been a designer, but the chief engineer has been the top guy. It was always just 100 percent engineering.”
The Camry was a tough test of Toyota’s quest for zest. Go too wild, and the traditionally vanilla family sedan might alienate the masses that have made it America’s best-selling car for 15 years straight. Katsumata’s Camry development team also wanted to maximize the functionality of the car to counter the public’s stampede to utility vehicles.
Designers eschewed the fashion of ever-narrowing greenhouses to create bigger windows and clear visibility, Cartabiano said. Toyota also stretched back the car’s roof peak to give more headroom in the rear seat and added 2 inches to the wheelbase to improve rear door access. The trunk lid opens almost past vertical to allow better cargo stowing.
But the Camry makes the biggest waves with its more dynamic exterior contours.
Part of the breakthrough came from Toyoda forcing the change. But new metal-stamping innovations also cleared the way for creating the designers’ sharp creases and curvy edges without the splintering of fragile edges in the factory. The advent of high-tensile steel also helped — as does the fact that Toyota, as one of the world’s richest automakers, can afford to splurge on new technologies.
“The fact that production engineering can make the shapes that designers dream about, that’s really great for us,” Cartabiano said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of kick ass products coming out of Toyota in the next couple years. And Camry’s a good start.”
The article “Toyota lines reflect designers’ growing clout” originally appeared on autonews.com