CHICAGO — Toyota Motor North America's decadeslong focus on continuous improvement has left few areas in which the company lags the competition.
But there's at least one, and in true Toyota fashion, it's now an area of emphasis for the automaker: accessories developed by the factory and sold by dealerships.
For years, the company has relied on aftermarket partners to service customers looking to spruce up their Toyota pickups and SUVs with roof racks, lift kits, light bars and accessories. While aftermarket giants such as Yakima, Bilstein and Rigid Industries happily obliged — and Toyota kept some mounting points unchanged for years to accommodate their products — the automaker says the business has grown too big to give away to third parties.
"Our goal in the future is to start offering more of our own parts and accessories, and really meet that need that our customer is asking for, that we really haven't addressed well," Mike Sweers, executive chief engineer for truck programs at Toyota Motor North America, told reporters this month at the Chicago Auto Show. "Inside the engineering community right now, how do we make our trucks so that, if you want to modify the truck, we're making it easier to modify the truck and providing the parts so that you can personalize the truck as much as possible to meet your own needs and suit your own tastes?"
Toyota offers accessories through its Toyota Racing Development performance line, which offers equipment for most Toyota vehicles, including the Tacoma midsize pickup, Tundra full-size pickup, 4Runner midsize SUV and Sequoia large SUV. But for savvy dealers, a full line of factory-authorized accessories can produce bigger profits. Unlike aftermarket accessories, those authorized by the factory and installed by the dealership usually can be financed with the vehicle and don't void the factory warranty.
That's especially helpful for off-road enthusiasts loyal to the Tacoma for its stiff body-on-frame design and light weight. Sweers said about 45 percent of Tacoma owners take their trucks off-road.
"When we did the major change on Tacoma ... we took a prototype vehicle out to Moab [Utah], and we had a truck jamboree out there," Sweers said, explaining Toyota's cooperation with aftermarket accessories manufacturers. "We work with them. We kept certain underpinnings the same so that they can keep making what they're making. Some areas had to be modified. Some didn't. But we're really trying to work with them so that they can offer as well, a full range of parts."
It's a lesson that Mopar, the parts and service brand of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, learned about eight years ago with its off-road icon, the Jeep Wrangler. Early this decade, Mopar began developing lift kits and other in-house accessories for the Wrangler after years of ceding that business to the aftermarket. Now those accessories account for millions of dollars in added annual sales for Jeep dealers.
"I think a lot of the best learnings that we get are from our service departments and from the people working in our service departments ... who are looking all the time at some of the issues that we have with accessories," said Jack Hollis, general manager of Toyota Division. "It's an opportunity for the Toyota brand across every vehicle that we offer, and it's something that we're looking to take a little more preparation and a little more planning for that customer. It's also where TRD comes into play. You'll see TRD offering extra accessories as well. That's part of the growth of our company still to come."