By on June 12, 2013


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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33 Comments on “From The Best Vanilla To More Spicy Pistachio: Jim Lentz Describes Toyota’s New Tastes...”

  • avatar

    The FRS seems like a better example of improved Toyota styling/fun than the new Corolla.

    If Toyota actually improves on the emotional stuff, probably Hyundai/Kia stand to lose more than anyone else because H/K is doing that really well right now.

    More than Toyota, Honda is in critical need of this new mandate.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, talk is cheap. Honda/Acura had to redesign over quarter of it’s models and look where they are.

      • 0 avatar

        They’re doing much better than you think.

        So far this year the Accord, Civic, CR-V and Odyssey lead their segments in retail sales. Virtually every sale Honda makes is to an individual for their own use.

        Lesser brands, meaning just about everything GM, rely heavily on fleet sales.

        GM, marketing to their market:

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, but the FR-S was never meant to be anything more than a niche product. The Corolla is a volume product (arguably THE volume product) for Toyota, so whatever direction they take with it is a much better sign of their overall strategy.

      I’m pretty convinced that the 86 would never have seen the light of day if it wasn’t Akio Toyoda’s pet project.

  • avatar

    Dear God, no.

    Kick these Krispy-Kreme fattened gaijin to the curb while there’s still time or you’ll be indistinguishable from the comic-book flashiness of Korean styling.

  • avatar

    How is the Corolla seen as the first example of them moving to more aggressive vehicles? Hell, the Yaris SE did the same thing the Corolla just did (new interior, meaner exterior, suspension/brake mods to make it “better,” but still keeping the same engine). They’ve been doing this before the 2014 Corolla. They were doing this before even the FR-S was officially unveiled (hello, Sienna SE anyone?), so where this “pistachio” started is up for grabs, but sure ain’t the ’14 ‘Rolla.

  • avatar

    Soarer? Celica? Supra? MR2? Sera? Altezza?

    The GT-86 doesn’t really count because that was a Subaru project to begin with. But it’s a good direction.

    The last time I checked, modern Toyota vehicles sit like taking a dump on the crapper but driving at the same time instead of reading newspaper. So yes it is a reliable appliance as long as it flushes.. I mean starts up everytime.

    • 0 avatar

      The 86 was originally a Toyota project. They later got Subaru to do most of the under-the-hood work, but I think the exterior design is actually Toyota’s.

  • avatar

    This Predator/JudgeDredd/DodgeAvenger Corolla styling is stillborn. Completely witless.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    “For better or for worse, it looks like the endless rants of bloggers about beige appliances are having their effects.”

    Bloggers have nothing to do with it. Toyota is slowly bleeding marketshare to rivals that offer much more interesting products. There’s an increased awareness amongst consumers that getting a solid value on a new car no longer entails hightailing it to a Toyota or Honda dealership, pointing at whatever’s out front, and saying “I’ll take one of those.” People are voting with their wallets, not blog comments. And that’s not working out so well for companies who have remained very conservative in their product planning.

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly. Same goes for all the hang-wringing and excitement over the current Jetta and Passat here in the US and de-contenting. Volkswagen’s strategy worked, sales jumped. Now that the competition has stepped up their game and consumers are starting to vote other brands again, Volkswagen will have to adjust its tack to continue on its sales goal path.

      Bloggers and auto journalists have had little to do with it.

  • avatar
    VA Terrapin

    The problem with Toyota isn’t that their mainstream cars have a reputation of being vanilla, it’s that it stopped selling sporty cars under the Toyota brand for a long time. How is it that the auto company that made and sold the Supra, MR2 Turbo, original AE-86, even the Celica and Corolla XRS, sells no sporty cars as a “Toyota” in the United States right now?

    Toyota might want to make a 2014 Corolla that directly takes on the VW GTI. Or a downscale version of the Lexus IS to take on the Mustang or 370Z. Those cars would most likely be more impressive than an average Yaris or an Avalon that goes around corners with less roll than their predecessor.

  • avatar

    Toyota got where it is today by selling the least annoying vehicles to people for whom cars are just another goddamn expense that can’t be avoided.

    They won over legions for whom the only “emotional side of purchase” had previously been anxiety and suspicion. Now they’re going to tamper with that philosophy because some superficial fathead of an American *salesman* thinks they need to offer more “fun”? Is it 1964 again?

    God, what happened to their Japanese leadership?

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      Their Japanese leadership is currently racing LFAs around the Nurburgring and demanding to drive everything with the family name on it before final approval. I think the change is more related to internal pride than Jim Lentz’s opinions. The vanilla is still there, it’s just extra-creamy old-fashioned style now…

    • 0 avatar

      Your mildly racist tirade aside, the “boring sells” strategy has only been a fairly recent development at Toyota. From the time of the Celica onward, Toyota was just as heavily involved in the emotional end of the U.S. car market as any other maker. It’s only from the early 2000s that they embarked on their current strategy of only offering very conservative products with fairly bland styling. Scion was a step in the right direction, but they bungled the execution, and I don’t think another brand was what Toyota needed anyway.

      The market will continue to punish Toyota until they offer products comparable to other brands in terms of glamour and curb appeal. Like it or not, those two factors have always been crucial to the US car market.

      • 0 avatar

        What is the best-selling car of all time?

        • 0 avatar
          juicy sushi

          A car which just got a massive sexing-up to help it compete on both margin and volume, rather than just volume which is all it can do now since it’s rather outdated (and I say that as an owner).

          Toyota has a personality, it’s just done a very bad job showing that personality off until very recently. The company, from the top down, now would like to correct that. This isn’t a bad thing I think…

          • 0 avatar

            But you know how that will translate through the braincells of a guy like Lentz…. more flame-surface gouges & grooves, higher ass and tinier windows than the next guy.

            Oh, and a Darth Catfish-ier front end, too, as evidenced by the new Corolla.

        • 0 avatar

          Realistically, and with volume adjusted for demand, it would be a tie between the Ford Model T and the Volkswagen Beetle. Both cars whose sales collapsed as they were overtaken by more efficient, better made, better styled, more comfortable and more useable rivals. The market waits for nobody, not even Toyota.

  • avatar

    Joe Isuzu is back.

  • avatar

    The USA got the ugly Corolla, while Europe got the good looking version. Toyota has reliability, but it’s still vanilla.

  • avatar

    Doesn’t Toyota do customer surveys where buyers select all the reasons why they bought a Toyota in the first place? Does “excitement” or “driving enjoyment” appear anywhere near the top on these surveys? Oh, I forgot –Toyotas are grounded to the ground! They be losing buyers when they find out the “exciting” Avalon (or Corolla or…) doesn’t NOT annoy as much as before.

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d argue that Toyota interiors are on the upswing versus where they were in 2006-2009. The interiors in the new ’13 Avalon, ’14 Tundra, ’14 4Runner, ’14 Corolla, ’13 Rav4, and ’12 Camry seem to be a massive jump in style and materials than the ones they replaced. I’m sure the upcoming Sienna, Tacoma, and Highlander redesigns/refreshes will continue the push of better interiors.

      My 4Runner is in that 06-09 release era where the interiors look decent but hard, painted plastic is all over the place. The interior in the ’14 4Runner midcycle refresh looks miles better in style and material. I have no complaints of durability in mine after 36k hard miles because it still feels and looks new with zero rattles or squeaks, but it definitely could use a nicer dash cover, more modern looking gauges, and less painted plastic… which is exactly what the ’14 refresh got.

      Re: quality/reliability… It seems to me that you still have Honda and Toyota consistently at the top of the reliability charts. Ford or Hyundai or GM will hop toward the top here and there, but the consistency isn’t there like you see with Honda and Toyota.

      • 0 avatar

        I agree that 2006-2009 was a low point for plasticky, cheap Toyota interiors.You are right, models launched the last few years are better. Maybe Toyota realised their cost cutting had gone too far. 2007 was also the year thel flagship Lexus LS460 lost the “Much better than average” rating in Consumer Reports, falling to a mere “better than average”, a ranking shared with many humbler cars. By definition half of all cars are better than average, so that doesn’t say much for a supposed leader in reliability. The same fall in rating happened to the Camry at the same time.

        • 0 avatar

          Couldn’t that be because the competition is (finally) stepping up, quality-wise?
          “Better than Average” implies it is being compared to the rest of its peer group.
          If the peer group gets better…

          • 0 avatar

            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?

  • avatar

    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.

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