By on November 12, 2006

mount-fuji444.jpgOn 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. 

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26 Comments on “Toyota: The Way...”


  • avatar
    Terry

    Funny how situations reverse…
    Prior to the mid-’70s, the American car represented a way of life and feeling, the Japanese car was a curious appliance.
    I even remember an advertisement from Chevrolet, circa 1972, showed a Corolla parked in the garage next to the Caprice Wagon with the words below the picture..”Go ahead and buy that import, they make good 2nd cars!”
    Then you have those that bleated..”Well, if they want to sell them here, they ought to BUILD them here.” MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!
    30+ years later, we have Japanese cars representing a way of life and thought, traditional US cars being thought of as appliances.
    The comment in the article concerning GM’s response to suggestions about SAAB sum up GM’s whole situation in terms of desireability and market share.
    I applaud Toyota’s committment to engineering and marketing. It has obviously paid off for them.
    Then again..GM DID offer the “World’s First G6…”lol

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    I was stationed in Yokosuka, Japan for 2 years in 1976.

    I saw first hand what Japanese teamwork and dedication can do. I knew then that we were in trouble. This feeling has subsequently been borne out. They pay attention to even the smallest details, something that we don’t.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Wow, that certainly sums up Toyota’s corporate culture. This was a great read!

  • avatar
    JJ

    The Fuji circuit will also be the venue for the 2007 F1 Japanese GP.

    Unfortunately, it replaces the grand prix at Suzuka, one of the greatest tracks of the year, owned by Honda and designed by a Dutchman decades ago.

    Still, no matter how well engineered the Toyota products are, not one of them I’d really like to buy.

  • avatar

    Fascinating, for reasons alluded to above. Tx, –David

  • avatar
    James2

    Well, if someone has to build the world’s best appliances-on-wheels, it might as well be someone very dedicated to the job.

    That said, I don’t buy Toyota’s so-called quality advantage, but it’s the perceived and palpable refinement that has got most people convinced.

    What these people do overlook, such as my parents (owners of three generations of Lexus ESs), is that the car is actually poorly designed. I don’t know about the current ES but having sampled all previous-gen ESs… this is not a good car.

    Handling is at best indifferent, steering feels like it’s connected to the front wheels via string, there’s way too much body motion. I’m not necessarily asking for BMW-quality handling, but a nice middle ground is there to be had. Oh, and over our Third World-grade roads in Hawaii, where’s the creamy ride? It’s not here. Car’s not particularly quiet, either, given the brand’s reputation.

    I flogged the 3.3-litre V6 to merge into traffic and the 5-speed autobox shuddered. Whoa! Thought the thing was going to break. Probably my folks will never notice or experience it, given the way they drive, but still…

    I stand only 5’6″ and I findthe rear quarters absolutely cramped. Yet, from the outside, this thing’s as bloated as a beached whale. Massive overhang front and rear, bulbous, formless, characterless sheetmetal, yet there’s no interior room. Ugh. I imagine that the chief engineer never bothered to try out the rear doors, either, given the awkward ingress/egress.

    Went to the auto show and saw the new-gen ES. Told my dad he should buy it if only because it looks a LOT better than his current ES. It’s still not a good car, given its Camry base, but looks ARE important :-) and my folks like the way the Lexus dealer treats them, which is probably the only thing that matters to them.

  • avatar
    qfrog

    The current Fuji cirucit is an awful boring drive in GT4… I much prefer the slower more intricate complexities of suzuka. Never would I want to drive a mosh-pit suspended Lexus at suzuka.

    If for nothing other than the corporate selection of road courses I think I prefer Honda over Toyota now. Suzuka is a wonderful road course which I’d jump at the opportunity to drive in real life. Fuji curcuit only slightly more interesting than oval track racing. With a power to weight ratio like a F1 car it might be interesting given just how quickly the course can be covered but anything shy of that and its just boring in comparison to suzuka.
    http://www.fsw.tv/guide/index.html

    Suzuka is very challenging, there is a series of turns which I can imagine is the reasoning behind cars like the integra type R and NSX. I’ll say it again… I’d jump at the chance to drive this gnarly piece of road course.

    http://www.suzukacircuit.com/circuit/images/course.gif

  • avatar

    The previous generation ES had terribly handling. It was more Buick than any current Buick. The current one is a bit better behaved.

    But the Camry SE V6 is more of a driver’s car than the ES. Very firm suspension, with tight body control.

    I’ve been collecting my own reliability data for a year now, and the Toyotas almost always do have repair rates on the low end of the range. First official results around the end of the month.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Three years ago I gave up on GM stock and sold the shares off that I had been holding for a long awaited turn-around. Instead I bought Toyota shares with the money. My reasoning was that even though Toyota’s stock was expensive, the company would continue to do well because they have an excellent product in every segment. My Toyota shares have nearly doubled in that time while GM shares have yet to recover to the price I sold them at. Good call!

    On it’s best day GM has a few top drawer products, but Toyota hits doubles, triples and home runs almost every time at bat. Smarts, hard work and an unyielding sense of dedication come through time and again. Personally I don’t own any Toyota products as the handling is a little bland for me, but the Honda and Acura vehicles in our garage suite us just fine. Honda is an even more engineering driven company than Toyota.

    The days of proud US automotive engineers working for the 2.5 are over, but some of the bright stars are picking up interesting work with the Japanese and Korean transplants.

  • avatar
    ghillie

    I had a ’93 Lexus LS400. It was beautifully built, classy and elegant inside and out. Not at all like my expectations of a Japanese car. IMO the later cars did not look as good as this one.

    It did not handle like a sports car but was very stable in corners once the weight had shifted. I have driven several ES300’s from the same era and they were not nearly as good. I felt like I was sitting on the ES300. The LS400 felt much lower and “planted” on the road.

    Before buying the LS400 I drove two 7 series BMW’s from the same era. They were terrible by comparison – sloppy, plasticy, noisy and crappy (and probably Snow White as well).

    I had never owned a Japanese car before the LS (now sold) but am now a convert – Toyota and Honda currently.

  • avatar
    PandaBear

    The way Japanese business works are very different than the American. I have read Andy Groove’s Only the Paranoid Survive, and in one chapter it mentioned the advantage the Japanese businesses have: government support.

    That was in the early 80s, when Intel was building DRAM and they have one team working on the next generation products, but NEC at the time has one dedicated team per generation, 3 down the road, and each team has the sheer volume of their entire department back in Intel in US.

    The conclusion? They have almost unlimited funding from the government and other business partnerships and they put all their egg in one basket, and they do not stop when the investment is not yielding good enough profit like the Wall Street driven US business that demand quarter to quarter PE ratio.

    There you have it, it has nothing to do with who has better engineers or patriotic customers.

  • avatar
    wsn

    James2:

    Toyota has been a major player in the United States for more than 30 years. It’s has sold millions of cars. The quality advantage is there and not just “perceived.” Do you think that all these Toyota buyers are less intellegent than you?

  • avatar
    wsn

    PandaBear:

    If there is “unlimited funding from the government,” why did Nissan get into bankrupcy?

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    Great article. Yet not surprising.

  • avatar
    HEATHROI

    Toyota’s new Fuji curcuit could be the new Hungaroring or San Marino. they even got rid of the high speed banked corner at turn one. Typical Toyota – a triumph of the bland.

  • avatar
    ash78

    I always find it sadly ironic that Japanese culture in general has many subtle layers of status and honor (far more than the US). However, when it comes to the auto business, they are somehow able to flatten the business structure in a manner not seen in most arenas of their society.

    Meanwhile, the US auto biz is usually looked upon as the land of the Camel Committee and half-assed product development…which sort of goes against our national (theoretical) notion of egalitarianism. So we have one of the flattest, most socioeconomically mobile societies, but we can’t adapt that to the auto business nearly as well as a society that is structured nearly opposite.

  • avatar
    jazbo123

    Mr. Sadakata obviously has a lot of soul. I wonder why Toyota cannot implant some of it into their vehicles?

    Mr. Leikanger, I think you were seduced.

  • avatar
    Captain Neek

    Toyota beat everyone else into submission with two weapons:

    1) Quality

    2) After Sale Service

    Not style or handling or top speed or anything else.

    My first (new) car was a bottom-of-range toyota. The dealer treated me like a King… much more so than the m-benz dealers i have to endure currently.

  • avatar
    McAllister

    There are some parallels between the automotive and music industries.

    If, in the music industry, you complain about the lack of quality in the current crop of releases, you get this reply: it’s the music BUSINESS; it’s not about the music.

    Car companies, too, care only about the dollars, and not about the cars.

    I’ll be the first to agree that profits are not only important, but critical. Yes, there are piles of money to be made and I really don’t care who makes it. But I’m not gonna spend my money on unsatisfying crap. Period.

    The music industry wonders why it is in free-fall (and no, it has nothing to do with piracy – that’s the industry excuse for their own bad business decisions).

    Make something beautiful, of high quality, with passion, vision, commitment, and purpose. If these things come first the money will flow.

    (I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think so).
    M

  • avatar
    Johnson

    Sorry James, but what does handling and steering feel have to do with quality? Was the Lexus interior rattling, was it cheaply made or had poor panel gaps? Did the car have poor refinement? Has it had any mechanical problems or broken down frequently?

    I must also chime in and say that Suzuka is a wonderful circuit, that many drivers liked. But it is quite dated, with a small pit area, and other restrictions, like very small safety run-off zones. A lot of teams complain nowadays about the Suzuka and it’s facilities.

    As for Fuji, seems as though some of you need a bit more research on it. It was originally supposed to be a banked super-speedway, but due to financial problems, only one banking was ever designed (turn one). That single banked corner was a cause for many major accidents. Also, that banked corner was changed long before Toyota got involved with the track. With regards to GT4 and other racing games, Fuji is only available under the old track layouts. In 2003, Toyota closed down the Fuji Speedway, and thoroughly redesigned it. It re-opened in 2005. In today’s day and age, with current F1 rules, it would basically be impossible to build a new F1 track as unique as Suzuka. Hermann Tilke did a good job redesigning Fuji, keeping in mind modern F1 safety rules and regulations. He also designed the circuits in Sepang, Bahrain, Shanghai, and Istanbul. If you ask F1 drivers their opinion of these circuits, they will definitely not call them boring. For Fuji, it now has two high speed turns, the 100R and 300R. They are similar in nature to the high speed turns on Suzuka. The old Fuji design had pretty smooth turns and corners. Tilke’s redesign makes the turns and corners sharper and more abrupt, and also adds some tighht hairpins.

    PandaBear, since you are familiar with Andy Grove, then I assume you also know that his perspective of “it’s good to be paranoid” was actually adopted from Japanese companies. Do you think it’s coincidence that for decades Toyota has been paranoid in many ways? Paranoia is what allowed Intel to compete, and also stay dominant in the chip-making and CPU making business since the 80s up until now. Likewise, paranoia is one of the reasons why Toyota has been so successful, and continues to see success. Paranoia goes hand in hand with Toyota’s philosophy of kaizen, “continuous improvement”. Where most American companies enjoy and relish their success, eventually becoming complacent, Toyota always believes it’s in a crisis, and is continually paranoid of it’s success, which allows them to stay sharp, and therefore highly competitive. Intel uses many of these same philosophies and ideals.

    WSN, good point about Nissan. I can also add to the list Mitsubishi, who nearly went bankrupt.

  • avatar
    finger

    Brands Gain on Toyota in Best Deal Rankings

    November 13, 2006

    Email this story Printer Friendly Version

    CAMPBELL, Calif. — Primedia’s IntelliChoice.com announced its Best Deals of the Month for November. Last month, Toyota held 10 out of 29 categories for best deals. This month, however, six of the 10 categories dominated by Toyota have been taken over by other brands.

    The most turnover occurred in the SUV and pickup segments. November rankings show the GMC Yukon reclaiming two categories, while Chevrolet, Nissan, Dodge and Ford each grabbed a single category from Toyota.

  • avatar
    blautens

    Commenting on some of the specifics – I have a 2005 RX330 and a 2006 Chevy TBSS. Both have stability control, traction control, and ABS. What a difference in the RX330 calibrations, though – it’s incredibly smooth, and it’s almost impossible to pitch the little tank into a spin, no matter how hard you try, slick surface or not. When it kicks in, you can tell (okay, I can tell), but the average driver might not. It’s the perfect car for a teenager – it’s *really* hard to kill yourself in this car being stupid short of driving straight into oncoming traffic.

    Contrast that with GM’s system, which admittedly might be tuned to be more lenient in an LS2 powered muscle truck. When it determines something bad is about to happen, indeed, the vehicle has slid quite a bit, and it clamps down the power like a Nazi prison camp director. It’s almost a bit scary, a lot like some of the primitive speed limiters.

    I find it annoying – particularly because unlike the Lexus, I can completely disable (independently) traction and stability control in the TBSS. Something which I’m completely in favor of. (Except in the car my daughter will drive.)

    My point is, after experiencing both, I completely believe Lexus engineers really sweat the details. GM engineers…well, I think they’re just sweating their pensions.

  • avatar
    buzzliteyear

    I recently (within the past year) heard an interview with Los Angeles Times automotive writer Dan Neil on NPR.

    http://www.latimes.com/classified/automotive/highway1/

    He noted that if you asked the typical Detroit-based auto executive what his ultimate job was, he’d probably say something like “My job is to maximize shareholder vaule”

    In contrast, if you asked a typical Japan-based auto executive what his ultimate job was, he’d probably say something like “My job is to create the product that will completely satisfy the customer”.

    So….who would you rather buy a car from?

  • avatar
    PandaBear

    wsn,

    I guesses that Nissan’s problem occur when Japanese economy crashed and could not recover from all the “unlimited funding”. It was a hard stop without braking. To some extend the Japanese did the exact opposite of our managment philosophy, to an extreme. This “job for life” and “no layoff” policy bleed some companies to death because they cannot survive till the next up turn in the market (example: SUN microsystem).

    How else can you imagine the almost 0% interest rate in Japan since the recession in the 90s?

  • avatar
    ChartreuseGoose

    Do you think that all these Toyota buyers are less intellegent than you?

    There are these things called logical fallacies. Basically, they’re logically unsupportable arguments that nobody should ever use to try to prove their point. One of them is called the “fallacy of the majority,” in which the arguer tries to establish the validity of their argument by appealing to the majority opinion: “but everybody thinks this, how could they all be wrong?” It’s an invalid argument, because a majority opinion is not guaranteed correct and the mere fact that most of the herd agrees with you doesn’t make you correct. Remember, the majority supported Mao, too.

    In addition to totally invalidating your argument, using logical fallacies also, to put it gently, does not reflect well on you. It makes you look silly and unsophisticated and incapable of coherently defending an assertion.

  • avatar
    ApexAlex

    Do you think that all these Toyota buyers are less intellegent than you?

    There are these things called logical fallacies. Basically, they’re logically unsupportable arguments that nobody should ever use to try to prove their point. One of them is called the “fallacy of the majority…”

    and this applies to the above quote, how?

    in fact, a good case can be made that toyota buyers ARE in fact, more intelligent than average.

    they are, at the least, literate. and the ones who happen to read CR so easily see, it is simply a NO BRAINER to pick the most reliable cars and trucks made on the planet.

    what intelligent person wants to WASTE hard earned money, given clear, documented cost of ownership facts and figures?


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