Wanted: Toyotas That Say "Toyota"

With a 99-vehicle lineup, the automaker lacks a recognizable visual style

Visit Toyota Motor Corp.'s (TM ) sleek new design center in Toyota City, Japan, and the first thing you'll see will be dozens of meter-long, jelly bean-shaped sculptures strewn about the main foyer. The brightly colored plastic baubles were commissioned to inspire the 650 stylists, technicians, and modelers on site. While they represent an artist's interpretation of Toyota's design philosophy, they also unintentionally showcase the company's chief problem: a schizophrenic identity. "Our lineup is like a series of vibrant colors that stand out up close but look gray when viewed together from a distance," says Hideichi Misono, a veteran designer who heads Toyota's new global design management division.

With 99 vehicles in its lineup, no wonder car buyers are confused by Toyota. While it has come up with pathbreaking vehicles such as the RAV4 compact sport utility, Lexus RX 300 SUV-sedan crossover, and the Yaris subcompact, it is best known for blander fare such as its homey -- but homely -- Camry sedan.

Of course, the Camry's middle-of-the-road styling helps explain why its appeal is broad enough to make it America's best-selling car. Still, for years, Japan's top auto maker did little to discourage the notion that it was content to churn out boring cars. "I've never thought Toyota had bad design," says Shiro Nakamura, design chief at arch-rival Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) "Their problem is just that they make so many vehicles, it's hard to distinguish between them." Eventually, Toyota fears that this profitable blandness will turn into something far more pernicious: Nissan's snazzily upgraded cars and vans, for example, could one day upstage Toyota.

To help carve an identity out of its vast array of nameplates, the company last year completed the new, $40 million design center. Inside, the facility features a virtual reality workshop known as "the cave," where prototypes are rendered in life-size 3-D images inside and out, an auditorium with a retractable roof for viewing models bathed in natural light -- but far from the prying eyes of outsiders -- and a conference room outfitted with tatami mats, shoji paper screens, and local pottery. There, Misono and his team brainstorm while sitting on the floor around a rough-hewn wood table, a setting reminiscent of a Japanese inn. One of the new team's first decisions was to boost the "J-Factor" -- a Japanese look and feel that had been missing. "We're looking back to our roots as a Japanese auto maker," says Simon Humphries, a British designer and a key member of the global design management team.

`VIBRANT CLARITY'. That J-Factor refers to a Mod Japan that's more about anime cartoons than samurai and sumo wrestlers. The company is aiming at something it dubs "vibrant clarity," which means spirited vehicles easily recognized as Toyotas. Some cars Toyota originally made only for the Japanese market sport that cool Nipponica styling -- like the boxy, out-there bB, now sold as the Scion xB in the U.S.

The idea is to add some of that edge to the rest of the lineup and help make Toyotas stand out in the crowd. To get there, Toyota has split its product lineup into seven distinct groups, each of which will now share more styling characteristics. For instance, the front grille of vehicles in its light truck group (which includes the Tundra pickup and Sequoia SUV) and the Lexus group will evolve to showcase clearer identities as Toyotas.

The first peek at the new look for Lexus came at the Tokyo Motor Show last fall. There, a pair of sleek concept vehicles featured horizontal bars on a grille positioned well below the headlamps -- a big departure from classic luxury car design. "Lexus has been so successful because there's nothing harsh about the design," says Lexus design chief Kengo Matsumoto. "But the flip side is that there isn't much to grab you visually."

Achieving a more common look across the carmaker's entire fleet will require more cooperation among Toyota's network of studios. Already, stylists in Toyota City are rubbing shoulders with personnel sent in from Toyota's other design hubs in Tokyo, Newport Beach, Calif., and Nice, France. The exchanges allow headquarters to keep tabs on developments overseas and spread the new design gospel. Don't expect Toyota to shock the world. But this giant may be capable of some wonderful surprises.

By Chester Dawson in Toyota City

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