June 29, 2012 at 9:35 AM ET
For a brand long known for its high quality and plain-vanilla design, Toyota sent shock waves through the industry when it rolled out an all-new version of the big Avalon sedan several months ago.
The new model takes its cues from Toyota Motor Co. CEO Akio Toyoda, who has promised to put more passion into the brand — but Toyoda also wants to let regional markets assume a bigger role in the development of new products like the Avalon. Also, and this may be an even more significant shift, the 2013 full-size sedan is the first Toyota product designed and engineered in the U.S.
“We really got to set the DNA of this car,” said Kevin Hunter, president of CALTY, Toyota’s U.S. design subsidiary, adding that, “It’s the most American car Toyota has ever done.”
That’s something automotive veterans have heard before, seemingly every time a vehicle was moved from a Japanese assembly line to one in the U.S., and whenever a new North American component was added. And indeed, a Japanese influence was still in evidence. The 2013 Avalon’s underlying platform and powertrain were developed for a wide mix of global products, including the smaller Camry, which Toyota updated for 2012. But the parts of the vehicle that matter all came from the U.S.
The design of the new sedan was handled by Toyota styling centers in suburban Detroit and Southern California. The company's engineering center in Michigan took on all but the most insignificant technical efforts of the program.
While the average customer might not care where the new sedan was developed — any more than they care today whether a Toyota was assembled in the U.S. or Japan — the key role played by Toyota’s American design and engineering operations shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.
As a result, the vehicle is more distinctively tuned to American tastes and desires, including its coupelike shape, the almost cavernous interior, its more sporty ride and the range of digital technology that is aimed at younger buyers.
The U.S.-friendly upgrades include a creative new vehicle control system used for systems ranging from the radio to the climate control that have more in common with an iPhone than a traditional automobile.
“It’s the beginning of a new era for Toyota,” proclaimed Bob Carter, the top U.S. executive of the Toyota brand. The new Avalon, he contended, “will attract a broad range of new buyers” for the maker.
For his part, Avalon Chief Engineer Randy Stephens admitted it was a daunting task. While Toyota has been expanding its technical capabilities in North America, Japan has traditionally had the first and last word on new vehicle programs. This project was clearly intended as a test to see if the U.S. operations could stand on their own.
In an odd way, the timing of the project was fortuitous. Development work got under way just as Toyota became enmeshed in the so-called unintended acceleration scandal that led it to recall millions of vehicles in 2009 and 2010 — and which forced senior Toyota executives to face brutal grilling from U.S. lawmakers.
An embarrassed CEO Toyoda promised to put more emphasis on regional operations, which only encouraged the decision to turn to American designers and engineers.
“We were fortunate” because of the timing, said Stephens, “But I felt the pressure more as the project went on.”
Yet, if anything, the rest of the team seemed liberated by the decision, suggested CALTY design director Hunter. “I never felt the passion from local designers like I did on this project. There was a strong sense on our team that we couldn’t fail. It had to be spectacular.”
The moment of truth came when an early prototype of the 2013 Avalon was shipped to Japan for a review by senior management. Getting his first look at the full-size model, CEO Toyoda broke out in a broad smile and declared, “Don’t change a thing.”
The project went into overdrive, with the results making their debut at the New York Auto Show in April. The car should reach production — on a Toyota assembly line in Kentucky — by early autumn. A total of 300 U.S. parts makers will supply the plant with 90 percent of its content.
Going forward, Toyota plans to ramp up its U.S. design and engineering centers, adding more than 500 jobs and investing nearly $200 million in the next several years.
Meanwhile, the automaker is expected to continue ramping up its North American production base as it continues shifting manufacturing out of Japan due, in part, to lopsided exchange rates.
Will there be more cars to follow Avalon’s lead?
“This car is the first stake in the ground,” said Toyota brand Executive Vice President Carter. While he won’t discuss specific future product plans he gave a broad hint by suggesting the Avalon program “is the symbol of the new Toyota under Akio Toyoda.”
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