By getting behind the wheel and scrutinizing product, the 54-year-old Toyoda believes he is living out the company's guiding principle: "Genchi, Genbutsu" -- Japanese for "go and see for yourself."
The key is getting out of the laboratory, Toyoda said.
"Lately, there are a lot of left-brain thinkers at Toyota," he said. "People who like to just logically come to conclusions in a meeting room. We may have had a little too much of that."
Toyoda peppers nearly every public address with talk of "seasoning" the company's vehicles so they're less blah and more "fun to drive." He cites a hybrid sports concept unveiled in January, a low-slung convertible based on the MR2, as the kind of product to expect under his tenure.
"I wanted a car that shows what we are aiming for, something affordable, fun to drive and good for the environment," Toyoda said.
Toyoda's business decisions are often rooted in such instincts. This month's snap decision to team with electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc., for instance, came after he test drove its Roadster in the hills of California and deemed it a hot ride.
But most of his first year in office left little time to pursue such visions.
Toyota posted its first loss in seven decades. An unprecedented quality meltdown triggered the recall of more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide. The problem, Toyoda said, was that the company grew too fast and took its eye off the product.
"Growth in itself is not bad if you can cultivate the human resources to keep up," Toyoda said. "But I don't want to be the largest company in the world. I want to be the best."
Toyoda's love of cars dates to a childhood surrounded by them. In kindergarten, he drew pictures of himself as a race car driver. Under Naruse, he learned a true appreciation for cars.
Naruse first tried to discourage Toyoda, warning of the inherent dangers in extreme driving. But that only egged him on.
"I love driving," Toyoda said. "So when a strict teacher like Naruse is telling me such stuff, it was hardly discouraging. It was more of a turn-on."
Every week for several years, Toyoda practiced high-speed braking, emergency rollover procedures, pursuit driving and controlled spins until he earned his "advanced" certification.
Toyoda believes it all makes him a better CEO -- one who, as Naruse exhorted, understands cars and their boundaries.
Toyoda said: "When it comes to our products, being able to know what is good and what is bad is a special skill."
Some observers disagree. Toyoda's incessant test driving and enthusiasm for racing are often derided in the Japanese press as a distracting hobby. Masaaki Sato, a noted Japanese auto industry watcher who has written such books as The House of Toyota and The Toyota Leaders, describes Toyoda as "the emperor with no clothes" who dodges the details while leaving daily business to his top lieutenants.
Last month, Japan's Foresight magazine suggested that a disaffected cohort at the company wants Toyoda to step down. Although no strong candidate exists to replace Akio Toyoda, Foresight pointed to Tetsuro Toyoda, president of Toyota Industries Corp., a machinery affiliate. Tetsuro is the son of Eiji Toyoda, a former Toyota Motor president.
Akio Toyoda is aware of his detractors. He said becoming an expert driver was partly an effort to win credibility at the engineering-driven company.
"I'm not an engineer," said Toyoda, who joined the company in 1984 after working at an investment bank and consulting firm.