On our way through the dark, the Toyota people prepared me for my room’s view. ”It’s Close to Mount Fuji,” they said. ”And your room is facing the mountain.” I got up at the first hint of light, walked to the window and realized I was at the very foot of Mount Fuji. The rising sun turned the snow at the summit a sparkling pink. A pair of huge Bonzai styled trees outside the window had clearly been posed with thought against the background. It was December 2003 and I was set to drive the Lexus prototype hybrid SUV.
Two years earlier, Toyota bought the Mount Fuji International Speedway to test their Formula 1 platforms. My hosts were taking me to the track to put the new 400h through its paces on what was fast becoming hallowed ground. Once we’d passed through the gate into the main reception, I was sternly instructed to leave my camera behind, sign various papers and promise to keep everything I learned top secret. I checked all the right boxes, made all the right noises and did my damndest to hide my growing excitement behind an unsuitably Western veil of eagerness.
I’ve been on a variety of tracks over the years, but this was the first course that was photoshopped to perfection. Everything was exactly as it should be. The Macadam surface was pristine, without a single hole, pit or bump marring the glassine surface. (I swear someone must have vacuumed the track that morning.) The tall Cypress trees lining the speedway looked as if they had been copy-pasted into place– each as tall as the one next to it, all the same shape and planted with 1/16 of an inch tolerance from the next.
As we walked into pit lane, there it was: a champagne colored Lexus SUV, soon to be called 400h. The model sat next to a Prius and a number of other premium cars I’m still not supposed to mention. They were there to provide benchmarks. The test car looked like … an RX330. Still, the secrecy made the hybrid seem as exotic as an experimental jet on the flight line, gassed-up and ready to go.
When I got behind the wheel, I immediately proceeded to disobey the detailed instructions. Standing starts, braking from top speed with wheels screaming, snap turning at speed to test the VDM; I took the gas – electric SUV through its paces and then some. The 400h was no race car, but the stepless push delivered by the planetary gears all the way from zero to top speed was a surprise.
Let me confess right here: I almost crashed the prototype. I went up on a bank and pushed it as fast as it would go, came out of the first curve and stayed up, realizing almost too late that the top lane didn’t run into the next curve; it was blocked with a boom. I just managed to switch lanes, the boom and supporting metal blocks flashing by on my right. The Japanese were too nice to show their displeasure when I returned to the pit. They did suggest I might want to stay at the lower level next time around, given that this was their only running prototype.
That evening, back at the lodge, I shared a couple of beers with the project’s chief engineer. Osamu Sadakata was gregarious and proud as a king. I asked what inspired his work with the 400h’s VDM traction control system, which uses its three engines ingeniously. ”We were thinking you should feel you are on downhill skis, at the top of the world’s toughest Black Diamond rated run. And you just plant your poles, push off and go, fastfast!” He winked, took a swig from his bottle, and delivered the punchline: ”Knowing that whatever you do, you’ll never fall, you’ll just have the time of your life.”
Mr. Sadakata must be a brilliant taskmaster. He’s also a lucky man. Dr. Toyoda is determined to make Lexus the number one brand in premium automobiles. That means letting his engineers get the resources they need. Just developing the algorithms for the sophisticated energy management must have cost a moonshot. And they were relentless in their ambitions for the launch of their unique SUV. I couldn’t help thinking of my run-ins with GM-honchos while trying to assist Saab with its international marketing. No matter what we suggested we were told to get with the program, stop nagging about Saabishness and just ”move the metal.”
Mr. Sadakata moved my soul with his anecdote about what inspired him. His car also gave me a dose of mystic religion, because I understood what it meant: Toyota would stop at nothing. And this car company wasn’t moving metal, it was building engineers’ dreams.