Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

Can Toyota Build Cars of Passion?

The question was blunt.

The answer telling.

Yesterday as I sat with a handful of other reporters for a one hour chat with Yoshi Inaba, the new President of Toyota North America talked about Toyota building cars that evoke passion.

Mr. Inaba was asked how Toyota would bring more heat to a line-up that many feel is lukewarm. Yoshi Inaba chuckled and said there is passion behind many Toyota models, even if not everyone sees it.

It makes one wonder if Toyota needs to become edgier in order to shake itself out of its doldrums in the U.S. With sales down 37.5% this year, Toyota is no longer profitable in the North America. It's also slipped from #2 to #3 in sales. Sure, you can blame this on the recession and point out many other mass market auto makers are also in the tank. Still, there can be no doubt Toyota is no longer on the roll that defined its success from the early '90's through '08.

Now it's up to Yoshi Inaba and the new CEO of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, to figure out how to get the Japanese auto maker back on track. So far, there are few concrete plans, only a broad strategy. Mr. Toyoda wants decisions for Toyota North America made by his leaders here in the states. Mr. Inaba wants to make those decisions faster. And both men want more passion in their product line. On paper all three make sense. But can Toyota build the models that make American car buyers say, "I gotta have that."?

I think so.

Yes, I know many of you believe Toyota only builds bland models like the Corolla and Camry.

The success of the bread and butter models obscures the design cues behind the Lexus IS F model or the rugged styling of the FJ Cruiser.

They may not be your cup of tea, but they are not milk toast.

If Mr. Inaba is truly serious about bringing more passion into the Toyota line-up his designers need to push the envelope. Now more than ever.

At some point tens of thousands of people who have been holding off on buying a new car will stroll back into showrooms. When they do, they'll be looking for more than just reliability. The Big 3 three have essentially closed the quality gap with Toyota and Honda, so the selling point is no longer which model will hold up better, it is increasingly be about stirring emotions with buyers. Mr. Inaba knows this. And he knows Toyota needs to have the bold styling (along with Toyota's legendary quality) to win over Americans who have more choices behind the wheel.

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