Toyota President Wants Eco-Cars to Be “Fun to Drive”

While many car companies focused on horsepower and size during the past decade, Toyota staked its reputation on dependability and eco-friendly hybrids. Toyota’s leadership is now calling for more excitement (a.k.a. speedy performance) to go with its green image.

Automotive News reported today that Toyota President Akio Toyoda is ordering engineers and designers to spice up the brand’s bland image. “I wanted a car that shows what we are aiming for, something affordable, fun to drive and good for the environment,” Toyoda said. He points to the MR2 hybrid sports concept as the kind of product he expects from a new focus on fun.

When Toyota unveiled the MR2 Sports Hybrid Concept at the Tokyo Auto Salon in January, observers gave it a zero percent chance of being produced. The 400-horsepower MR2 hybrid is based on the MR2 platform that was nixed from the U.S. market in 2005.

The MR2 Sports Hybrid Concept combines a 3.3-liter V6, used to drive the rear wheels through a continuously variable transmission, and an electric motor for the front wheels. The concept has an estimated zero-to-60 time under 4.5 seconds.

Marketing Spin or Change of Direction?

Mr. Toyoda’s desire for pizazz and power, as well as fuel parsimony, goes a long way to explain why he decided to team up with Tesla Motors. The partnership between Tesla and Toyota creates high-power excitement, but it’s too early to tell if it will lead to any real product. Marketwatch reported that Tesla recent IPO amendment filing states the two companies “have not entered into any agreements” to make electric vehicles together, and “may never do so.”

When the Tesla-Toyota deal was announced, Toyota’s Jana Hartline, environmental communications manager, told us that the company’s electric vehicle plans have not changed. Toyota is still focused on a “limited range urban commuter car,” along the lines of the Toyota FT-EV.

That’s not quite the picture of driving excitement described by Mr. Toyoda. And neither is a family of hybrids based on the Toyota Prius. Yet, these cars represent clarity of purpose about bringing hybrids and other electric-drive car to a mass market—just as fuel economy regulations are getting tougher and gas-electric technology is starting to become a mainstream option for consumers. Toyota is aiming to sell 1 million hybrids per year in the next year or two.

Putting resources into producing an M2-like hybrid or co-producing an EV with Tesla could represent a shift in direction, as Toyota tries to rebuild its image after a season of global safety recalls. We understand the need to create visionary new products, but we hope that the company doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The auto market (and the world) needs mass-market high-efficiency vehicles that meet the needs of everyday drivers. One million hybrids per year: There’s nothing bland about that.

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  • DownUnder

    Toyota should make sustainability number one and excitement number two priorities.

  • Brian Z Jones

    1st rule of marketing: sex sells.

    Sustainability is not sexy.

    Toyota need a bit of a sales boost to continue to enjoy the massive profits they continue to pull in (even with global downturn & recall issues). Toyotas are built by committee, and it shows. They are bland, with no brand image to rely on, excepting the Piou- er, Prius.

    The FT-86, the Tesla deal, & this (weak, but interesting) MR2 Hybrid are a step in the right direction. People (myself included) become brand-loyal, and a lot of that is tied to the image of the car. Toyota has no image.


  • Charles

    Toyota has an image of building the most reliable cars in the world. That image propelled Toyota to the top of the sales heap of automobile manufactures. In clawing its way to the top it looks like Toyota forgot what got them there and it has shown in its reliability ratings. The reliability ratings are a leading perception indicator. If Toyota does not return to quality as its first priority, their image will suffer. No matter how sexy the car, if it does not have a reputation for reliability sales will not be sustainable over the long term.

  • Dom

    A manual transmission instead of the CVT would make that MR2 Sports Hybrid Concept even more fun.

  • Carl

    Now that’s a car I could buy!

    I have a Miata for fun but at 11 years old it’s got only 21,000 miles.
    It’s never going to wear out, so it will take a real special car to replace it.

    Toyota does have a problem, all of there cars (lexus too) handle like refrigerators.