TOKYO -- While the Scion FR-S sporty coupe was under development, Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda came out to test drive the vehicle once a month.
And he didn’t always like what he drove.
Among his most scathing criticisms, recalls chief engineer Tetsuya Tada, came when Toyoda stopped dead in his tracks during a test run and blasted the vehicle as a car he couldn’t “talk to.”
“His worst criticism came around the midpoint of our r&d,” Tada said of his top boss’ nonplussed reaction. “He said, ‘I can’t talk to this car.’ And we all wondered what he meant.”
Says Tada: “It was a turning point in terms of what direction we would develop the car.”
Toyoda’s obsessive focus on the FR-S, known outside the United States as the Toyota 86, highlights how the grandson of the company’s founder injects a personal touch into Toyota Motor’s cars.
An accomplished racer, Toyoda wields a sometimes cryptic lexicon to describe his role as the company’s top test driver. He often describes himself as a chef who is “flavoring” the vehicles. And in cases such as this, he emphasizes being able to have a “conversation” with the car.
Toyoda’s tinkering with the FR-S, a car he championed even before becoming president in 2009, is the latest of several product interventions.
He put the redesigned Lexus GS on the chopping block only to grant a reprieve after engineers tweaked its driving dynamics to win his approval. Most famously, he toiled over the Lexus LFA high-end sports car for most of a decade until his pet project was just right.
“He’s quite blunt and critical,” Tada says. “I don’t recall past presidents ever driving our test cars. I’m glad. But it’s kind of a burden on us, in a way.”
For Tada’s r&d team, Toyoda’s feedback meant one thing: The FR-S was too sterile.
On paper, the horsepower, speed and other specs were fine. But it still handled like a dowdy front-wheel-drive car, even though it was supposed to be an edgy rear-wheel-drive one, he says.
The car was overcompensating too much for poor driving.
“If you are driving terribly, the car should reject that and let you know you aren’t driving well,” Tada said. “The car needs to give you a direct response of the environment, if the road is snowy or slippery. That’s what the president meant by having a conversation with the car.”
Tada kept tweaking the handling until Toyoda was smiling.
The result, as Toyota bills it: a car “built by passion, not by committee.” The 86 -- or “hachi-roku” in Japanese -- goes on sale in Japan on April 6 and the United States later in the year.
The boss' satisfaction
To prove the boss’ satisfaction, Toyota unveiled the car Thursday, Feb. 2, outside Tokyo with wide-screen video footage of a beaming Toyoda behind the wheel, tearing up the track, doing doughnuts and drifting the car sideways through the dirt and snow. He sometimes cackled with delight.
Toyoda, who appeared at the event decked out in his red-and-black racing suit, recounted a run-in with a journalist when he was learning the ropes of high-performance driving.
“He said, ‘It seems like more Toyota board members have their hands around golf clubs than the steering wheel of actual cars.’ I felt that was a criticism,” Toyoda said. “I used to play golf. But I decided to reduce that time playing golf and spend more time driving cars.”
Added Toyoda: “Now I try to test drive 200 cars a year.”