Is Akio Toyoda cut from the Steve Jobs mold?

Automotive News | May 8, 2013 - 12:48 pm EST

Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda wants to take personal responsibility for injecting design and performance pizazz into the Lexus brand.

In essence, Toyoda is setting out to be the automaker's equivalent of the late Steve Jobs, the legendary boss of Apple.

An excellent story in this week's Automotive News, by Asia Editor Hans Greimel, lays out how Toyota's boss is getting more hands-on with the luxury brand

He recently reorganized his company into four groups, one of which is solely devoted to Lexus. The other three groups report to an executive vice president who reports to Toyoda. The Lexus group skips the EVP and reports directly to Toyoda.

Greimel quotes Toyoda as saying that at Lexus design reviews, the room is full of engineers and businessmen who bring plenty of left-brain firepower to the discussion. "My role is simply to talk with the right side of my brain," Toyoda said.

Akin to Apple

That sounds strikingly similar to the role Jobs played at Apple.

Lots of computer and consumer-electronics companies make gadgets that, technically, range from competent to excellent. What largely set Apple apart was Jobs' insistence that the company's products met his uncompromising standards for clean designs and user-friendly interfaces.

In the auto world, there's a long tradition of a boss with a singular vision for his cars. Think Henry Ford, Enzo Ferrari and Soichiro Honda. But the list is overwhelmingly populated by engineers.

Akio Toyoda is not an engineer.

What he brings to Lexus is a hard-earned reputation as a driver, a man who understands a car's driving dynamics and handling, and his sense of style. Toyoda has often shown more fashion flair than his gray-suited Japanese colleagues. Here's a minor example.

Toyoda: A hard-earned reputation as a driver, a man who understands a car's driving dynamics, and a sense of style.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Fashion flair

During a visit to New York recently, Toyoda donned three different sets of eyewear in one afternoon: his usual business glasses for an interview, a trendier pair for a Lexus press conference and a set that fit in perfectly with the hipster crowd invited to a party to launch Lexus' new global marketing campaign.

Of course, taking on the responsibility of being the arbiter of Lexus style and performance will require more than an awareness of how to accessorize one's wardrobe. And Lexus has certainly had some superb stylists who sought to give the brand's vehicles designs that were beautiful and emotionally engaging.

But the end products have all too often shown that terrific designs were not a top priority for the senior executives who signed off on Lexus' vehicles.

Whether Toyoda is truly capable of performing the role he is taking on remains to be seen. But you have to admire his audacity in taking on the challenge.

James B. Treece is industry editor for Automotive News.James B. Treece is industry editor for Automotive News.

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