Members of the media view Toyota's Corolla Furia concept vehicle… (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg )
Of all the automakers trying to generate buzz on the Detroit auto show's first day, Toyota Motor Co. made the most noise.
The company rolled out a concept design for the Corolla, one of its most important models, and announced preliminary sales figures showing that it has regained the title of world's largest automaker from General Motors Co.
Called the Furia, the new-concept Corolla, with its severely raked windshield and bulging fenders, marks a radical departure from the past and signals a wider effort by Toyota to shed its conservative image and make cars that ignite consumer passion.
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"Iconic dynamism" is how the automaker describes the design language of the Furia concept. How much of that dynamism makes its way into the production model remains to be seen. Toyota offered no details on plans for horsepower, torque and handling capabilities. Nor did the company say when the next Corolla will hit the street.
Whenever it arrives, the car will have a huge effect on Toyota's future bottom line and its reputation in a hot and growing segment, analysts said.
"This car is very important to Toyota," said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com. "With the explosion of subcompact cars in the past few years, coupled with the demise of large cars, compact cars suddenly find themselves as the 'middle size' for American consumers."
Last redesigned for the 2009 model year, the Corolla is overdue for an overhaul. With its dated exterior and old-school trappings such as a four-speed automatic transmission, the current model "is old in the segment of small vehicles that have gotten a lot of attention in the past few years," Caldwell said.
The car plays a key role in Toyota's success. It's the second-best-selling compact car in the U.S., with 291,000 sold last year, second only to the Honda Civic, which sold about 318,000.
The more aggressive design philosophy applies across the company, said Mark Templin, the global product and marketing manager for the automaker's Lexus division. Toyota isn't so much chasing volume as it is trying to design compelling cars, he said. His marching orders from Chief Executive Akio Toyoda are to "build cars that are fun to drive."
"Akio expects us to change the way the company behaves," Templin said. "He wants us to show the rest of the company how we can move fast, how we can make quicker decisions, take risks. He expects us to have fantastic design and great driving dynamics."
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Toyota isn't known for its flash or risk taking. In fact, its boring-but-reliable reputation has served it for decades and helped it once again take the No. 1 sales spot.
The automaker estimated Monday that it has overtaken General Motors as the global sales leader on the strength of a 22% sales increase last year, to 9.7 million vehicles. Those numbers will be finalized at the end of this month. GM said Monday that its 2012 sales got a 2.9% boost.
By any measure, Toyota has executed a quick turnaround from safety recalls as well as production problems stemming from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
In the last few years Toyota has suffered a series of embarrassing recalls and government fines related to incidents of unintended acceleration.
But the Japanese automaker has continued to push forward, launching about a dozen new or completely redesigned models in the U.S. in the last year, including new wagon and commuter versions of its popular Prius hybrids. At the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, it launched a new-generation RAV4 sport utility vehicle, an aging model facing stiff competition from newly redesigned competitors such as Ford Motor Co.'s Escape and Honda Motor Co.'s CR-V.
Toyota executives say both the RAV4 and the Corolla concept unveiled Monday embody the automaker's desire to push the envelope. Though some concepts bear no resemblance to production cars, Toyota says the Corolla Furia "hints at the styling cues consumers can expect to see in the next Corolla."
Since 1968, the Corolla has sold millions of copies with its unwavering embrace of the practical — some might call the current model plain, even homely. But the company now speaks, somewhat self-consciously, in soaring terms of its new focus on aggressive styling.
Bill Fay, Toyota's group vice president and general manager, acknowledged in a statement that the Furia design study "will surprise a lot of people."
If GM was sore about losing its No. 1 spot to Toyota, it wasn't showing it Monday.
GM might have defended its position if it was willing to crank out more cars, said Larry Dominique, president of lease and resale information company ALG. Instead, he said, the Detroit automaker decided to focus on building its brand and boosting profits on the models it did sell.
In a sign that strategy is working, recent model GM vehicles are holding their value far better than previous generations, Dominique said.