Toyota drops "plain vanilla" styling with eye on Hyundai's rise

Sun Jan 13, 2013 1:45pm EST
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By Yoko Kubota

TOYOTA, Japan (Reuters) - When Tokuo Fukuichi was brought back to Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T: Quote) to become head of design, he was given a simple directive from President Akio Toyoda: make Toyota cars simple and cool. He took a risk and objected.

"I said, look, Mr. President, just cool is not good enough," Fukuichi told Reuters. "Toyota had already tried hard to fix ugly parts and make them look better. What Toyota lacks the most is character."

Fukuichi, 61, knows something about character. In the late 1980s, he designed the first generation Previa, also known as the "egg-van" -- one of the most love-it-or-hate-it Toyota vehicles ever.

For Toyoda, who has criticized his company for losing sight of the fun and excitement of the automobile and has tried to shake up its stodgy and engineer-dominated design process, Fukuichi brought the right kind of edginess to the job. In a rare move, he asked Fukuichi to rejoin Toyota in 2011 after he had left for group company Kanto Auto Works.

Two years on, Toyota's designs are starting to show signs of change. From luxury brand Lexus's pinched-in-the-middle "spindle" grille to the Auris hatchback's sharply angled headlights, Toyota is taking steps to distance itself from a legacy of "plain vanilla" styling.

Not everyone is happy. At a shareholders' meeting in June, the very first issue raised from the floor was a complaint about the new "face" of Lexus models. But Fukuichi is unfazed.

"If we don't take risks now, there will be no future for us," he said.

The latest evidence of Toyota's newfound willingness to take risks with the look of its cars will be on show at Monday's Detroit auto show when Toyota reveals the Furia concept sedan, expected to give consumers a sense of what is coming when it launches the next version of its top-selling Corolla sedan.   Continued...

Toyota Motor Corp's Managing Officer Tokuo Fukuichi poses in front of a clay model of concept vehicle NS4 at the company's design center building in Toyota, central Japan November 28, 2012. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao