When was the last time you heard the head of an auto company compare its cars with dishwashers? Toyota Motors (NYSE: TM ) CEO and president Akio Toyoda was the brave heart to do so. His statement, more than any financial data, tells you what's wrong with the world's biggest carmaker. Whether it's the Camry or Corolla or Prius, all have been beaten up by reviews across the board for their boring, conservative looks and lack of any oomph factor.
No doubt, these not-so-cool cars are each best-sellers in their own right, but a company cannot turn its back on better design and perhaps more importantly on style.
No more "boring cars"
Toyota churns out quality, reliable, efficient, and comfortable cars with ease, but its models are mostly plain and dowdy. In comparison, automakers like Ford (NYSE: F ) and Nissan have been touting their sleek and stylish cars. They have proven that even midsize family sedans can be jazzy. Ford Fusion's style quotient is so high that it reminds one of Aston Martin and Audi. And it's selling like hotcakes -- Fusion sales increased 22.4% in 2013 compared to 2012, whereas Camry, America's most popular car for the past 12 years, grew a meager 0.9% in 2013.
A refurbished Corolla, another of Toyota's popular cars, saw modest growth in 2013. Although the company redesigned the car in the second half of 2013, the 2014 model has gotten mixed reviews as some felt Toyota played it safe by not making drastic changes.
Things are looking up on this front though -- the CEO has made his intentions quite clear -- "no more boring cars." For the new Camry, which might be launched in 2015, Toyota wants to bring back the pride factor in the owners of its cars. The design will be more emotional and impactful. New looks for Prius -- Toyota's hybrid -- are also in the works.
As Toyota embarks on its journey to evolve and become more aggressive with remodeling, the company has made a design statement that has silenced its critics. Toyota flaunted its Future Toyota vision with the unveiling of its uber-cool FT-1 concept car at the Detroit Auto Show in January.
Calty Design Research Studio, where the concept took shape, wanted it to look "as if it was sculpted by the wind." The two years that Calty Design put into its making have definitely paid off.
While it looks a little unlikely that the FT-1 would ever hit the roads, the concept makes it clear how the CEO wants the company to be perceived in the future. The FT-1 has compelled Toyota's detractors to have second thoughts before dismissing the company as bland. However, sprucing up well established, popular models is an uphill task.
Treading a thin line
Toyota is in a tricky situation -- on one hand it wants to make its Camrys and Corollas to be visually more appealing, on the other, it does not want to offend their loyalists. Toyota estimates that there are 5 million Camry owners in the U.S. alone. A redesign or a new look can go horribly wrong sometimes, as was the case with the Honda (NYSE: HMC ) Civic 2012 and General Motors' Malibu 2013.
When Honda launched the 2012 Civic in March 2011, little did it know that the car would again go under the knife in 18 months. After the debut, the 2012 Civic was thrashed inside out, literally. Consumer Reports actually dropped the Civic from its top-five recommendation list -- for a best-seller that was disastrous. Dud, sham, and betrayal were some of the adjectives showered by the media on the model. Honda quickly hustled to control the damage and came out with a reredesign in November 2012, the 2013 Civic.
Toyota is unlikely to compromise on its quality especially at this juncture, but anything radical may adversely affect the mass market appeal that most Toyota cars have. So, the stakes are high but Toyota seems to be ready to take the plunge.
Toyota is feeling the pulse of the young buyers and is willing to take risks. The company is also hoping that the die-hard Camry and Corolla fans will willingly buy the newer versions of their favorite cars, rather than shift to a different brand -- just like an Apple aficionado moves from iPhone 4 to iPhone 5, rather than a jazzy Samsung or HTC. It's too early to say whether Toyota will succeed in its efforts, but if the Japanese behemoth bags the style tag, its market lead might become invincible.