From The Best Vanilla To More Spicy Pistachio: Jim Lentz Describes Toyota's New Tastes

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
from the best vanilla to more spicy pistachio jim lentz describes toyota s new

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.

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6 of 33 comments
  • Ed Berry Ed Berry on Jun 13, 2013

    Toyota has been cheapening the quality of their cars the last few years, while hoping customers would not notice. It is the old GM trick. It didn't work for GM either. People do notice. While Toyota is busy trying to become cool, they are no longer the leader in reliability they used to be. The difference to other brands has shrunk. Now Toyota is just one of several good brands. Not that Toyotas are bad, they just don't stand out anymore. Since I doubt Toyota is going to become cool anytime soon, how about they get back to basics and make cars that do stand out with superior quality and reliability again? That used to be their business model.

    • See 3 previous
    • Ed Berry Ed Berry on Jun 13, 2013

      @daiheadjai That is true, the competition has improved, but it is suspicious that the fall in ranking happened just as the LS460 took over from the consistently "much better than average" LS430. Lo and behold, LS460 from 2007, 2009 and 2011 are ranked as "average" only! Ford Crown Victoria was "average" too... And the LS is supposedly the best car Toyota makes. Something happened in their organization, I suspect. Cost cutting and/or shorter development time?

  • Junebug Junebug on Jun 13, 2013

    I was a kid of the 70's, you could buy 60's era muscle cars like SS396 Chevelles or Mach I Mustangs for $1,500-$2,500 (wish I had bought a wharehouse full!) and that's what we all wanted. It wasn't that hard to work and have a little parental $upport to get a good ol Merican car a few years old. They were fun, easy to work on and modify, fast, lousy on gas, handled like a tractor and rode like one too. Then in 1976 I saw the Toyota Celica, it was grayish silver, had tail lights like a Mustang, the interior looked like something from the 21st century and was driven by the hottest babe in town. Honesntly Pam, I just wanna look at your car and hey - busy tonight? I really wished I had saved my hard earned on the farm money and bought that little car, instead, it took till 1986 before I bought my first, an Integra - that my lousy ex-wife got.

  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.
  • Marvin Im a current owner of a 2012 Golf R 2 Door with 5 grand on the odometer . Fun car to drive ! It's my summer cruiser. 2006 GLI with 33,000 . The R can be money pit if service by the dealership. For both cars I deal with Foreign car specialist , non union shop but they know their stuff !!! From what I gather the newer R's 22,23' too many electronic controls on the screen, plus the 12 is the last of the of the trouble free ones and fun to drive no on screen electronics Maze !