Akio Toyoda

Akio Toyoda's Toyota makeover is working

June 10, 2013: 6:24 AM ET

The CEO's plan to inject some verve into the carmaker's lineup is paying off.

By Doron Levin

More pizazz.

More pizazz.

FORTUNE -- Akio Toyoda, Toyota Motor Co.'s chief executive officer is on a tear. The company's new Corolla is the latest example of his initiative to inject pizazz into a carmaker known mostly for solid, reliable -- but unexciting -- vehicles.

Toyota (TM) debuted the Corolla, which will arrive in U.S. showrooms this fall, in Los Angeles last week. Prior to the presentation in Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica airport was an over-the-top spectacle of acrobats, scantily clad mermaids cavorting in an airborne, transparent swimming pool. Former Top Chef contestant Richard Blais was in attendance, dispensing fancy offerings such as nitrogen cocktails.

Akio Toyoda made his point. He didn't attend, though his spirit was clearly expressed at the glitzy event.

Toyoda, 57, took over as Toyota chief in 2009, amid a worldwide economic slump. The slowdown in sales was compounded by an uproar over accusations of unintended acceleration in some Toyota cars. A humiliating recall followed. The safety issues proved mostly unfounded. In the meantime, Toyoda humbled himself in early 2010, apologizing before Congress for the safety mess.

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The Japanese expression Toyoda has been using lately inside the company is waku-doki, as in, cars that "raise your pulse." Last summer, Toyoda appeared in video advertising for the new Camry, dressed in a racing suit. A business graduate and grandson of Toyota's founder, he has helped engineers vet new Toyota models at racetracks. He earlier sharpened his driving skills behind the wheel of a Porsche in the 1980s, before he came to work at Toyota.

For the moment, the Corolla remains the top-selling car in the subcompact segment in the U.S., a title it seized from Honda's (HMC) Civic. Likewise, through May, Camry is the top-selling U.S. compact car, beating Accord. Neither Honda, nor General Motors (GM), nor Ford Motor (F) are Toyota's main competitive worries -- that distinction belongs to Volkwagen AG. VW has announced its intention to grab the No. 1 spot from Toyota or whomever by 2018.

"The Corolla backs up Toyota's stated intent for emotional design," said Stephanie Brinley, senior of IHS Automotive in Troy, Mich. This model may "set the tone," she said, for what the company is calling the Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA), a system to make vehicle development faster and more efficient, in terms of capital expenditure, while creating more common parts. The new Corolla doesn't embody TNGA; Toyota models appearing in 2015 will be the first under TNGA, she said.

VW has discussed openly how its engineers are using fewer and fewer architectures to develop vehicles of different sizes and across several different brands -- which helps drive down the cost of each vehicle. VW then can use the savings to push prices lower or to add premium content, thereby making its models more attractive.

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Yoshimi Inaba, executive chairman of Toyota Motor Sales USA and an adviser to Akio Toyoda, attended the Corolla event. He acknowledged that TNGA is underway and that it was "inspired" by VW, though its specific methods differ from VW's.

No doubt Toyota's brain trust is looking forward to the day when savings culled from development of global vehicles such as Corolla -- 40 million sold so far -- can be applied to all kinds of new, costly technology and vehicle models. Not to mention spectacular vehicle introductions.

Toyota is unquestionably a more excited company than it was in 2009. Whether customers find new Toyota models more exciting will shortly become evident.

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