Toyota has been the brand par excellence in terms of quality and reliability for as far back as many of us can remember. But, as value became its hallmark, someone decided to turn the excitement volume down to a faint whisper — breaking the knob off entirely in the mid-2000s, when the MR-2 and Celica were discontinued. Even with the company’s introduction of the 86 in 2013, its mainstream designs were about as safe a play as one could make.
If you haven’t noticed (let’s face it, you have) Toyota’s styling has changed immensely of late. The automaker has a new attitude and affixed angry gaping maws onto the core brand and added folds to the bodywork we never would have anticipated.
This wasn’t an accident. Toyota is intentionally trying to push the envelope in terms of design and rattle a few cages along the way. Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Co., decreed that boring cars would be a thing of past and has given designers the means in which to accomplish that goal.
“The era of boring cars, of bland cars and anonymous design is over,” Ian Cartabiano, studio chief designer for Toyota and Lexus, told Automotive News carmaker’s global headquarters. “It’s what Akio expects. When the president says something like that, it really allows designers to feel creative freedom.”
We’d dismiss this as hype-talk were it not for numerous examples that prove Cartabiano’s point. Take a look at the evolution of the Camry between 2012 and now. It underwent a major facelift in the 2015 model year, followed by a new generation that a lot of us didn’t know what to make of. While its styling has grown on some of us, the operative word when discussing the bodywork is polarizing.
“I respect something that’s new but not perfect, rather than something that’s beautiful but nondescript,” Cartabiano said. “I’d rather be challenged than made comfortable. Polarizing is OK.”
“In the beginning, it was like, ‘Oh that would be cool, but they’ll never make anything like this,’ ” he said of the Camry redesign. “But then, engineering’s getting excited and we’re figuring out ways to do it.”
Cartabiano said that more funding was designated for the Camry’s design, specifically to make desired design elements a reality. In addition to the sweptback c-pillar, Toyota dropped extra coin to ensure multiple bumpers, more wheels, and an optional blacked-out roof for the sedan.
“The design budget was increased, and a lot of that was because of [Toyota’s New Global Architecture],” he explained. “We can make this kind of sculpture, but still make lots of product and keep our costs down.
Toyota isn’t the only brand trying to refresh its image, however. Most automakers are continuously trying to bring something new to the table without rocking the boat so much as to capsize it. Honda is also pursuing internal changes as it strives for a more futuristic, angular, and exciting design language — but the jump isn’t as dramatic. Toyota leapt directly into the deep-end of the styling pool, updating the majority of its lineup with Lexus-adjacent grilles and more visual attitude. Even the Yaris has gone under the knife.
Meanwhile, the C-HR looks so much like the concept vehicle that is is almost unfathomable Toyota was willing to put it into production.
“That’s a crazy-ass shape,” Cartabiano said. “I think the side panel of the C-HR would look really cool hung on the wall as a piece of art … In the old days, people would have said, ‘That’s a lot of extra cost or that’s a lot of extra time. Let’s take the easy way out.’”
“In the olden days, when we had brand identity, we would just toss it with the next car. It frustrated a lot of us,” he said. “Now we’re not throwing out what’s good. We’re now evolving it … Often, when you design something, you can see the compromise when you see it on the road. But when I see these cars just driving around here, I don’t see compromise. I see purity.”
But is Toyota giving the public more than it can handle?
“Many viewers find the new visual identity bordering on ‘too much, in your face,’ ” said John Manoogian, former General Motors designer and a professor of transportation design at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. “While I believe in standing out and eschewing the bland and boring, they have to be careful in executing this new direction. The sales numbers will tell the true story.”
“It’s almost impossible to miss or ignore Toyota’s products anymore,” Manoogian continued. “It’s so difficult to get a large corporation to understand the importance of design as a strategic tool and a product differentiator. Apple understands this. Mr. Toyoda understands it as well and has unleashed Toyota’s designers to be as creative as possible.”