For better or for worse, it looks like the endless rants of bloggers about beige appliances are having their effects. Toyota is getting in touch with its emotional self, and that self-discovery starts in America, ground zero of the beige kvetching.
“In the past, we were very strong on the rational side of the purchase decision: Quality, dependability, value, safety,” says Toyota’s CEO of North America, Jim Lentz, today. In the past, Lentz was proud to sell the best vanilla there is, today, he promises pistachio. “We were weak in the past in terms of the emotional side of purchase: Styling, interior and fun to drive. That’s where you will see the big changes.”
Some of the big changes became evident at the launch of the U.S. version of Toyota’s mainstay model, the Corolla. When unveiled on June 6 in Santa Monica, the U.S. Corolla looked much more stylish than its new Japanese sibling, which we drove around Tokyo a year ago. While Toyota stays square at home, it turns hip abroad. That change of heart and design pleased the digital fourth estate. “The press that saw it on June 6th are very excited about the car,” Lentz beams, while Tokyo communication chief Keisuke Kirimoto tucks on Lentz’s sleeve to get him into a car and to Toyota City, where Akio Toyoda still insists on punctuality.
Lentz came to Nagoya today to celebrate his promotion to North America Chief with a Japanese media that still is trying to come to grips with the fact that four out of eight Toyota regions are now in the hands of gaijin. Before his promotion in April, Lentz was chief of Toyota Motor sales and hence head salesman of North America. Now he heads “all three silos” as he likes to call sales, manufacturing and engineering.
Despite the design changes, Lentz thinks it will be a long time, or never before Toyota will get back to the 17 percent market share it had in 2009. That was a fluke, born more out of a perverse alignment of the competition’s weakness, carmageddon, and the strength of Toyota’s bank account, Lentz tells us today:
“We were flush with capital so that dealers could borrow money to floorplan cars. I think we had some tailwinds, and I don’t think 17 percent is a realistic number. Somewhere between today’s 14 percent and 17 probably is right.”
While being dragged away, Lentz pours cold water on hopes that the Prius will soon be made stateside. Sales of all Prius models go according to plan, and “today, there is no need to add additional capacity and bring it to the US. When that sales forecast exceeds capacity, we will be one of the regions in the world to raise our hands.” Even then, it would be “very challenging, because we need to localize all the components as well. It does not do us any good to assemble in the US and to ship parts in from Japan.”
Sounds like never.