TOKYO -- CEO Akio Toyoda is Toyota Motor Corp.'s master driver and self-described "ultimate filter" of brand taste. In an interview with Asia Editor Hans Greimel, Toyoda, 61, talked about his interest in racing and how it now influences the flavor of Lexus and Toyota vehicles.
Q: You drove a Toyota Altezza, which was sold overseas as the Lexus IS, in your first Nurburgring race in 2007. What is your impression of that car?
A: Based on my current definition of a good car, on a 10-point scale, it was maybe a two or three. That was the start of my journey to create ever-better cars that make people feel safe and secure.
How did training with longtime Toyota master driver Hiromu Naruse help you understand the qualities of a good car?
The following year, I drove the regular IS. We experimented with what happens if the weight of the car gets lighter or if the tires are different, what happens when the engine is tuned one way, what happens if the suspension is replaced.
So for a full year, I had those experiences. The main chef was Mr. Naruse. He was cooking right in front of me, and he made me try the ingredients. The next leg of our journey was to really come up with the secret sauce of Toyota and Lexus. And that resulted in the LFA.
How can you replicate that secret sauce in more mainstream offerings?
It's all about the atmosphere. When it comes to horsepower or performance, it may be a different story. But there should be something the driver can pick up in the five senses.
It could come from things like once you place yourself in the driver's seat, you sense the actual distance to the instrument panel or the physical locations of the gauges. Or when you press the accelerator and hear the noise of the exhaust.
It won't exactly equal the secret sauce of the LFA, but from time to time, even if you are driving a Yaris, you can pick up on it.
Before a car is approved for production, do you personally test drive each one?
I can't drive all the cars. Usually, [it's] the sporty types. For the Lexus LC, for example, the chief engineer aggressively approached me for my input. I personally drove that car from the early stages of development.
Who will be the next master driver?
There are several people who are doing driving with me, and it will probably be one of them.
There are so many at the moment, about 10 or 20 working very close to me on the course. They have to be my successor, so they have to be younger people.
But as long as I can keep driving, I will be the master driver.
What ambitions do you have for furthering your racing experience?
Recently, I've become interested in participating in the World Rally Championship. I don't think I'll be able to join the races directly. But in maybe four or five years, I'd at least like to drive on the same courses.
There are different classes that may allow me. In France, Germany, Spain, there are paved courses. For example, classic supercars are allowed to take part two or three days prior to the real race. That's something I want to try out.
I think it's important to keep that kind of pressure on yourself -- that you will someday have to take part in a race. It helps me keep that filter precise and accurate.
I get older every year, and these driving senses I have get dull.
What should be the taste of the Lexus brand?
First, you'll come to feel "I want to drive this car forever." And I want it to be kind of funky.
And what should be the taste of the Toyota brand?
For Toyota, contributing to society through the auto industry has been a basic philosophy. Considering this, cars need to be embraced by society, so a reasonable volume and level of usage needs to be achieved.
The Lexus world is like a cozy restaurant, which is somewhat exclusive. But Toyota cars should have a popular taste no matter where you go in the world.