The Rationale Behind Toyota's Insane New Styling

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Toyota has been the brand par excellence in terms of quality and reliability for as far back as many of us can remember. But, as value became its hallmark, someone decided to turn the excitement volume down to a faint whisper — breaking the knob off entirely in the mid-2000s, when the MR-2 and Celica were discontinued. Even with the company’s introduction of the 86 in 2013, its mainstream designs were about as safe a play as one could make.

If you haven’t noticed (let’s face it, you have) Toyota’s styling has changed immensely of late. The automaker has a new attitude and affixed angry gaping maws onto the core brand and added folds to the bodywork we never would have anticipated.

This wasn’t an accident. Toyota is intentionally trying to push the envelope in terms of design and rattle a few cages along the way. Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Co., decreed that boring cars would be a thing of past and has given designers the means in which to accomplish that goal.

“The era of boring cars, of bland cars and anonymous design is over,” Ian Cartabiano, studio chief designer for Toyota and Lexus, told Automotive News carmaker’s global headquarters. “It’s what Akio expects. When the president says something like that, it really allows designers to feel creative freedom.”

We’d dismiss this as hype-talk were it not for numerous examples that prove Cartabiano’s point. Take a look at the evolution of the Camry between 2012 and now. It underwent a major facelift in the 2015 model year, followed by a new generation that a lot of us didn’t know what to make of. While its styling has grown on some of us, the operative word when discussing the bodywork is polarizing.

“I respect something that’s new but not perfect, rather than something that’s beautiful but nondescript,” Cartabiano said. “I’d rather be challenged than made comfortable. Polarizing is OK.”

“In the beginning, it was like, ‘Oh that would be cool, but they’ll never make anything like this,’ ” he said of the Camry redesign. “But then, engineering’s getting excited and we’re figuring out ways to do it.”

Cartabiano said that more funding was designated for the Camry’s design, specifically to make desired design elements a reality. In addition to the sweptback c-pillar, Toyota dropped extra coin to ensure multiple bumpers, more wheels, and an optional blacked-out roof for the sedan.

“The design budget was increased, and a lot of that was because of [Toyota’s New Global Architecture],” he explained. “We can make this kind of sculpture, but still make lots of product and keep our costs down.

Toyota isn’t the only brand trying to refresh its image, however. Most automakers are continuously trying to bring something new to the table without rocking the boat so much as to capsize it. Honda is also pursuing internal changes as it strives for a more futuristic, angular, and exciting design language — but the jump isn’t as dramatic. Toyota leapt directly into the deep-end of the styling pool, updating the majority of its lineup with Lexus-adjacent grilles and more visual attitude. Even the Yaris has gone under the knife.

Meanwhile, the C-HR looks so much like the concept vehicle that is is almost unfathomable Toyota was willing to put it into production.

“That’s a crazy-ass shape,” Cartabiano said. “I think the side panel of the C-HR would look really cool hung on the wall as a piece of art … In the old days, people would have said, ‘That’s a lot of extra cost or that’s a lot of extra time. Let’s take the easy way out.'”

“In the olden days, when we had brand identity, we would just toss it with the next car. It frustrated a lot of us,” he said. “Now we’re not throwing out what’s good. We’re now evolving it … Often, when you design something, you can see the compromise when you see it on the road. But when I see these cars just driving around here, I don’t see compromise. I see purity.”

But is Toyota giving the public more than it can handle?

“Many viewers find the new visual identity bordering on ‘too much, in your face,’ ” said John Manoogian, former General Motors designer and a professor of transportation design at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. “While I believe in standing out and eschewing the bland and boring, they have to be careful in executing this new direction. The sales numbers will tell the true story.”

“It’s almost impossible to miss or ignore Toyota’s products anymore,” Manoogian continued. “It’s so difficult to get a large corporation to understand the importance of design as a strategic tool and a product differentiator. Apple understands this. Mr. Toyoda understands it as well and has unleashed Toyota’s designers to be as creative as possible.”

[Images: Toyota]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Akatsuki Akatsuki on Sep 18, 2017

    A couple of thoughts. Not boring does not equal beautiful. Rather than running away from a heritage of boring, maybe they should instead focus on creating an aesthetic that is beautiful and attractive (like classic Alfas or Maserati or whomever). Second, it can take a while to get a design right. I'd argue that Lexus styling, while initially off-putting, has been going the right direction with the LC being just about perfect. The new LS looks good too, predator maw and all. I do think they should have a different design language for the SUVs since it doesn't work too well there.

  • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on Jan 15, 2018

    Give it 15 years and they'll be quaint. Around the turn of the 2000s I couldn't imagine anything uglier than the then-current Cadillacs, but then the era of all-rulers, weird creases and sharp angles came to Cadillac and those early 2000s models look downright sexy, in my eyes. I'd never buy one, but my eyes bleed every time I see the current crop of whatever-they're-calleds.

  • Lou_BC Blows me away that the cars pictured are just 2 door vehicles. How much space do you need to fully open them?
  • Daniel J Isn't this sort of a bait and switch? I mean, many of these auto plants went to the south due to the lack of unions. I'd also be curious as how, at least in my own state, unions would work since the state is a right to work state, meaning employees can still work without being apart of the union.
  • EBFlex No they shouldn’t. It would be signing their death warrant. The UAW is steadfast in moving as much production out of this country as possible
  • Groza George The South is one of the few places in the U.S. where we still build cars. Unionizing Southern factories will speed up the move to Mexico.
  • FreedMike I'd say that question is up to the southern auto workers. If I were in their shoes, I probably wouldn't if the wages/benefits were at at some kind of parity with unionized shops. But let's be clear here: the only thing keeping those wages/benefits at par IS the threat of unionization.