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Toyota president says firm's cars need to be better looking

Akio Toyoda, speaking at the Detroit auto show, says the automaker plans to give more authority to its design studios in the locations where the vehicles will be sold and produced.

January 11, 2011|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Detroit — Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda said Monday that the Japanese automaker needed to add more excitement to the styling of its vehicles.

Speaking to reporters at the North American International Auto Show — his first visit to an American auto show — Toyoda said, "I think cars need to be better looking. We are going to come up with better-looking, nicer cars."

One way Toyota plans to improve the design of its vehicles is by giving more authority to its design studios in the locations where the vehicles will be sold and produced, he said.

The "product speaks for itself. It is the key player in the whole business," Toyoda said through a translator.

Toyoda was in Detroit to introduce an expansion of the Prius hybrid line. The new models include a station wagon with significantly more cargo space and a small, budget-oriented Prius c designed for city driving and aimed at the youth market.

Toyoda acknowledged that Toyota's recalls have hurt its image over the last 18 months.

The automaker saw its share of the U.S. auto market fall to 15.2% in 2010 from 17% the prior year as it recalled millions of vehicles and paid record federal fines of nearly $50 million for failing to promptly inform regulators of defects in its vehicles and for delaying recalls.

Toyoda blamed the problems on Toyota's rapid growth worldwide in recent years.

He said the automaker had new systems in place to prevent a repeat of its problems and asked Jim Lentz, who heads Toyota's U.S. sales operations, to talk about how the company has changed.

"We had to look at what were the seeds that caused the challenge that we had this last year," Lentz said. "While we were talking to customers we were not listening very well to their concerns about product and other issues."

In the future, Toyota will respond more quickly to its customers and federal regulators, and the company has established a better communications channel back to headquarters management in Japan, he said.

"The communications channels between us and Japan were not as robust as they should be. We have a much better system in place today. Communication is much stronger," Lentz said.

Toyoda said the damage was short term and had to be seen in the context of seven decades of successful automotive production, including more than 50 years of sales in the United States.

Nicknamed "the prince" by Japanese media, the 54-year-old grandson of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda took over as the youngest president in the company's history in 2009 after Toyota's biggest annual loss — $4.4 billion.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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