The design brain trust of the world's most successful auto company is discreetly tucked away in a leafy suburb in Newport Beach, Calif. Toyota's (TM) Calty design and research facility sits inconspicuously at the end of a sleepy cul-de-sac. Surrounded by fountains and gardens, the studio radiates a monastic calm broken only by the sound of children playing in the yard of a nearby grade school.
Despite the Zen-like atmosphere, designers here have been brewing up creative disruption on four wheels for decades. Since it was established in 1973, Calty has served as the Japanese giant's crucial toe-hold in the American auto market. The studio has created some of the company's boldest and best-selling vehicles, including the 2005 Scion xB and the 2001 Highlander SUV. Now, Toyota's American designers are at it again.
On Jan. 13 the company will take the wraps off yet another vehicle that could have embattled American automakers scrambling to catch up. A new concept truck, dubbed A-BAT, will make its debut in the heart of the U.S. auto industry at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. And there's a twist: The tough-looking pickup packs a hybrid gas-electric power supply to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy.
The sleek vehicle is roughly the size of Toyota's smallest SUV, the RAV4, despite looking much larger thanks to an oversize front grill and rough-and-tumble body design intended to delight truck aficionados. But in a marriage of red- and blue-state values, the truck was conceived as a gas-electric model. The truck's cabin is shaped like a trapezoid, as is the company's flagship gas-electric, the Prius, with which it shares the Hybrid Synergy Drive system. "People gravitate towards sporty," says Matt Sperling, a designer with Calty. "If you inject utility into that, we think it's win-win."
Pickup Truck Wars
Earlier this year, Toyota overtook General Motors (GM) in global auto sales for the first time. And 2007 was a banner year for Toyota's truck division in the U.S., as it introduced a redesigned full-size pickup, the Tundra, intended to compete with the last reliable profit centers of American manufacturers. On top of rave press reviews, the vehicle earned the coveted Truck of the Year award from Motor Trend magazine in December, 2007.
According to Automotive News, Tundra sales for the first 11 months of 2007 were up nearly 37%, to 177,336 vehicles, over sales of the previous model in the same period in 2006. Sales of GM and Chrysler Group's competing trucks were flat. Ford (F) suffered double-digit declines, though it still sold some 635,000 units of its flagship F Series pickup.
The new A-BAT would potentially extend the ongoing dogfight into other segments of the U.S. truck market. The vehicle is a compact truck that would fit into the company's lineup below the Tundra and midsize Tacoma, which has grown in size over the years. The smaller A-BAT could prove popular with young buyers looking for a fuel-efficient but versatile vehicle. Erich Merkle, vice-president for forecasting at Grand Rapids (Mich.) automotive forecasting firm IRN, says: "Such a vehicle is a real genre-buster, and that could leave competitors behind if the concept becomes a production vehicle."
On the face of it, producing the A-BAT might seem counterintuitive. After all, the market for small trucks has languished in recent years. A dearth of products has been punctuated by lackluster, infrequently updated models. Merkle forecasts that U.S production of small and midsize trucks will continue to dive, dropping from current levels by some 28%, to 458,000 vehicles in 2009.
"Other makers are ditching the category, but we see an opportunity," says Andrew MacLachlan, a senior strategic planner with Toyota. "If oil doesn't go below $90 a barrel in the foreseeable future, this could be where trucks are heading."
Unlike other flat-bed pickups, the A-BAT would likely be built on a car platform, improving fuel economy, safety, and handling. Its small size, versatility, and hybrid power plant would set it apart from anything on the market or upcoming products from major manufacturers. "This is classic Toyota," says Merkle. "They're positioning themselves ahead of the curve, preparing products for a generation of consumers that is still coming up."
Certainly, growing environmental concerns, new government regulations, and the high cost of fuel have created interest in smaller cars, with new introductions in that category by nearly every major automaker in the past 18 months. Most have been microsedans. The next frontier, analysts and designers say, is smaller vehicles shaped like wagons, vans, SUVs, and—perhaps—pickup trucks. "This is our vision," says Calty senior designer Daryl Harris.
To Be Determined
The new vehicle is also another important symbol of how seriously Toyota takes the U.S. auto market. Calty designers say the idea for the truck came out of "blue sky" brainstorming sessions held at an off-site workshop in March, 2006. "This was the first design project that didn't start with a directive from Japan," says Ian Cartabiano, a project chief designer. "It was literally 'let's think more broadly about what this country needs'." Of course, despite the U.S. focus, if the vehicle did well, it could be transferred to other markets.
Whether or not the A-BAT makes it to market remains to be seen. However, the Calty team behind the new concept has a strong track record, reflected in a parking lot packed with vehicles that were created there. The studio was responsible for the Toyota FTX concept truck, which eventually became the new Tundra. Its FJ Cruiser, a boyish 4x4 with Tonka-truck looks, was so popular with the public when it was unveiled as a concept in 2003 that Toyota scrambled to send it to production. "We've had a lot of success with previous concepts," says Alan Schneider, a project chief designer. "We hope [the A-BAT] has the same impact as the FJ."
Despite Toyota's reputation as a green technology leader, the A-BAT would not be the first hybrid pickup on the market. At the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, GM introduced an advanced hybrid version of its Silverado full-size pickup. But GM's track record in the hybrid market is spotty. A so-called mild-hybrid version of the 2005 Silverado sold dismally, and analysts don't expect the company to sell more than 30,000 units annually.
If any manufacturer has the green gravitas to make a small, economical hybrid a hit—even a pickup—it is surely Toyota. Calty's track record would suggest nothing less.