(EDITOR'S NOTE: For the benefit of our website visitors who were not able to read this story because it came out in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of the magazine, we're posting here the recipient of the 2013 Henry Ford Award for Best Automotive Feature Story.)
IF YOU BUY THIS CAR, YOUR LIFE WILL BE FUN
By Vernon B. Sarne
I'm having a casual chat with a 55-year-old Japanese guy in a cold airfield somewhere in Mendig, Germany. His soft voice and even softer demeanor almost give me the impression that he's embarrassed about something. The Japanese, after all, are known to easily get mortified by anything that even remotely resembles failure or disappointment. Tetsuya Tada is gesticulating as though he's blaming himself for the tsunami that hit his country last year--or maybe even for Pearl Harbor.
In truth, Tada-san is somewhat ashamed for having a role in kuruma banare, which means "demotorization," a term used to refer to the Japanese youth's sudden indifference to cars beginning in the '90s. It is said that young people in the Land of the Rising Microchip have increasingly lost interest in automobiles, and that they would rather fiddle with a PlayStation Vita than hold a steering wheel. They're now content to take the subway, lost in their mobile music and wireless social media.
The last decade was especially difficult for an engineer of any Japanese automotive company. Car sales in Japan had sunk so low that in 2009, the figure sagged to less than five million units--the first time it happened since 1978 and the fifth straight year of steady car-sales decline. It was the single most irrefutable proof of the new generation's disinterest in anything with four wheels and an engine.
Tetsuya Tada happens to be a car engineer. He works for Toyota Motor Corporation, a company he joined in 1987. In all the time Tada toiled in front of the carmaker's drawing boards, he also helplessly watched as Toyota cemented its reputation as a boring, play-safe car manufacturer. In a way, because Toyota is the biggest car company in Japan, one could say it deserved the biggest slice of the guilt pie when the country's population began losing interest in motor vehicles. And Tada-san is not just another engineer at Toyota: He's a chief engineer. To call Toyota dull and unimaginative was to condemn Tada.
The Nagoya University graduate was himself aware of the problem. No one needed to tell him to go out there and see for himself how the young Japanese no longer wanted to buy cars. He only needed to go home to his two sons, now aged 27 and 30, both of whom devoid of any kind or shape of automotive passion. "They just didn't want to have cars," Tada tells me, almost sighing. It's not that his boys did not take after their father, whose very first car was a Toyota Publica in the '70s. It's that they grew up in an era when cars had ceased to be exciting--when carmakers were more obsessed with fuel economy than sharp handling.
The first car Tada-san designed when he became a full-fledged chief engineer in 2001 was the second-generation bB, a small, boxy wagon targeted at consumers in their twenties. This second iteration sported fancy curves its predecessor didn't have, a telltale sign its project leader so desperately wanted to reach out to its fashion- and technology-minded market. In the end, there was only so much he could do with a basic template cursed with more 90-degree angles than a mechanical engineer's protractor.
In other words, the engineer continued to be a chef in Toyota’s flavorless kitchen. They continued to sell cars--many of them, in fact--but these cars were now just objects of necessity rather than desire. The company had become nothing more than a money-making enterprise, one that was no longer capable of noticing that its customers had begun treating its products like dreary appliances. To buy a Toyota was to buy a vacuum cleaner, nothing more, nothing less.
And then one day, Toyota's top management received a jolt.
"I believe that if it is not fun, it is not a car," TMC president Akio Toyoda would tell the media at the Tokyo Motor Show in November 2011. "Cars must have an emotional presence that inspires drivers. When you grip the steering wheel in your hands, you feel excitement. I truly believe that no matter how advanced cars become, it is important to retain this feeling."
The occasion was the launch of Toyota’s "Fun To Drive" marketing slogan, with no less than the manga character Doraemon serving as its ambassador.
"Today, it is said that young people have little interest in cars," Toyoda would say. "As an automobile maker, I find this quite frustrating."
How frustrated was Toyota’s big boss?
"He came to us engineers," Tada-san recalls. "And he blamed us for this generation's apathy toward cars. He said it was our fault. And he ordered us to fix it."
And so, in 2007, as head of the company's Sports Vehicle Management Division, Tada tapped Subaru--whose parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, is 16 percent owned by Toyota--to be a partner in finding the solution to kuruma banare.
That solution is the Toyota 86, winner of our first-ever Car of the Year award.
* * *
I'm hanging out with Toyota 86 chief engineer Tetsuya Tada in Germany to celebrate his car. And yet he acts as if he is oblivious to the fact he has already come up with the "fix." He has been touring the world meeting and greeting dealership principals, motoring journalists, car club members and sports car enthusiasts. He's a rock star now. Everyone wants to shake hands with the man behind the car.
The event is called "Toyota 86 Experience." It's the carmaker's way of telling us that the 86 is not just a car--it's an experience. Look at it, touch it, drive it, and your appreciation of cars will never be the same again. It's like being in the company of nuns inside a convent for years, and then stepping out and running into Eva Mendes in a torso-hugging tank top and the miniest of miniskirts. The encounter can only be likened to somebody waking up from a coma.
"Fun-to-drive is the experience we want to deliver to the market," Tada tells our media group. "We need a car that can offer fun without a big price tag."
That's the appeal of the 86 right there: It's a fun sports car that many people can afford. In developing it, Tada took note of expensive supercars that only the truly wealthy were able to enjoy. He stayed away from the costly frills that only added to a car's production costs. Instead, he focused on three things: "an iconic exterior design, a driver-centric interior, and intuitive driving dynamics." He conceptualized and built the car around the driver. He wanted to make driving a car--as opposed to just owning one--cool again.
He met these objectives by basing the sheet metal on the legendary 2000GT; creating an engine that combines Subaru’s boxer layout with Toyota's D-4S technology; giving the car an ultra-low center of gravity that's merely 460mm above the ground; distributing weight evenly (53:47) between the front and the rear; sculpting a body that boasts a coefficient of drag (0.27) lower than a Porsche Cayman's; positioning the driver's hip point close to the ground (400mm); equipping the car with the smallest steering wheel that Toyota has ever made (a diameter of 365mm); installing a short shift knob that's a joy to thrust; and, of course, adopting a rear-wheel drive layout.
The result is a car that made even the difficult-to-impress Jeremy Clarkson declare: "This is the best car I’ve driven in ages!"
The 86 is not particularly fast nor distinctly powerful, but it is definitely orgasmic to drive, especially around the bends. Thanks to this car, the young generation of drivers can know once again that driving need not be a chore--that it can truly be entertainingly sublime.
As for me, the 86 has been the only car thus far to have made me consider trading in my beloved hatchback--a car, believe it or not, I will not exchange even for a BMW M3.