Toyota is one of the few mass manufacturers to make a profit. Nargess Shahmanesh-Banks talks to its design chief about future plans

Toyota is on the fast track to becoming the biggest car-maker in the world. A year ago it closed on Ford for global second position in terms of sales, and to number one in terms of market capitalisation - ahead of General Motors, Ford, the Volkswagen group, DaimlerChrysler, PSA Peugeot Citroën and Hyundai put together. So how has this been possible? After all, the Japanese giant has only been making cars in serious numbers since the 1970s.

The answer is strategic global planning, clever packaging to match each and every market, reliability and a decent price tag. True, these are key ingredients for success, but what Toyota has been missing so far, the main spice that will make its cars just that little bit more desirable, is original design, and the company is well aware of this missing link.

Hence, J-factor, or Japan factor, which is the new Toyota buzzword. "J-factor is Japanese originality that will have global appeal," says the new global design manager, Wahei Hirai. It will apply not only to the design of all future Toyota and Lexus cars, but also to engineering as well as corporate identity.

At ED2, Toyota's European design centre, established in 1998 outside Nice, the 16 resident designers, with their nine different nationalities, are working hard towards interpreting this Japanese element into design. At the Californian style house Calty Design, too, everyone is being urged to think J-factor.

"The most important thing is for our design to be independent and original," Hirai explains. This is something that is completely new for Toyota, which has so far been succeeding in copying design features from rival car-makers, collaging them together and re-packaging them under the Toyota badge. So why this urgent need for design authenticity?

Toyota sells a vast range of different models in its home market. If you include commercial vehicles, the number is just short of a hundred. So with nearly half the market share, it doesn't need to think too much about its identity in Japan. Across the Pacific, too, the brand has had a long and strong history where it has succeeded in mirroring the taste of American customers. Calty was established more than 30 years ago specifically to cultivate the translation of this taste.

It is Europe, however, that is the key to Toyota's global strategy, because the market is 20 years behind the others as far as the Japanese giant is concerned. However, it is now benefiting from a strategy of impressive investment in its European operations which includes six manufacturing plants in five countries. While Toyota has just celebrated making its 2.5-millionth European-built vehicle in the 14 years it has been building cars in the region, the time it takes to produce the five-millionth is likely to be dramatically reduced, seeing that this year alone it is on course to produce 565,000 vehicles on the continent.

Its core European cars - Yaris, Corolla and Avensis - are not just made in Europe for Europe, but are also designed in Europe where, Hirai admits, it is much trickier to understand taste. "It ¿s not one country, you know," he says mockingly. "There are so many different cultures and tastes in Europe that we need to understand."

Toyota is well aware that it is missing the strong heritage and history that helps make European cars special. "A German car looks like a German car, so why shouldn't a Toyota look Japanese? We need to find an originality that is based on our Japanese background," says Hirai.

Following some brainstorming at the design department in Tokyo, a conclusion was reached that it is not sufficient simply to look back at Japanese design heritage for inspiration. Today's Japan incorporates two aspects: serenity and extreme technology.

"If these opposite parts meet," says Hirai, "then there is the possibility of creating something new and unique to Toyota." For instance, he thinks, using technology can help create a serene interior environment in the car. It was also noted that there is a certain level of "perceived quality" that Europe demands, but more importantly that there should be a more global vision. The European-designed Avensis, for instance, was exported back to Japan a couple of years ago with great success, paving the way for others such as the current generation European-designed Corolla. It isn't surprising that a highly shrewd business such as Toyota should capitalise on this design suucess.

Lexus, too, will head home for the first time next August. Although existing models have been selling well so far under the Toyota badge, the company feels that it is the right time to market Lexus as a successful "foreign" luxury brand. Introduced to the US in 1989 to steal potential Mercedes and BMW customers, it has been a huge success, outselling the Germans within the first two years. In Europe, however, the cars are seen as visually dated; yet it is Europe that is vital to Lexus, as its performance here will impact on its image back home.

Hirai promises a whole new generation of Lexus cars and although he will not reveal a great deal more about the design language, he points to the company's recent show car, the Lexus LF-C, where "surface is everything", he says. He also suggests that the quality of materials used inside and the extra attention to form will create something desirable for the European buyer. With the more upmarket badge, Lexus, Toyota has come up with another bit of jargon, "l-finesse", where "l stands for leading edge and finesse is just a nice word", admits Hirai. On a more practical note, the long-overdue diesel models should guarantee a substantial sales boost in Europe, even in the UK which accounts for almost 40 per cent of current sales.

Also adding to the "desire" factor will be Toyota's eco-car venture which includes the extremely successful second-generation Prius, (current European Car of the year) as well as a new high-performance hybrid SUV in the form of the Lexus RX400h, which is expected not only to raise the profile of electric/conventional engine hybrid technology, but also that of its maker. And in terms of design, Hirai is well aware of future prospects. "We have a good chance to propose some extreme advanced design," he says, adding that the hybrid cars will also flourish under the umbrella of the J-factor. Hirai says that Toyota already knows a great deal about quality and reliability, but what it now needs to instil into its cars is good design. The car-maker wants its designers to think "Pass" at all times, where "p" stands for proportion, "a" for architecture, "s" for surface, and the second "s" for something special. Hirai doesn't want Toyota or Lexus cars to be distinguished by, for example, a similar grille. This, he thinks, is very much a European strategy. Instead, Toyota needs to find out some other way to infuse a sense of harmony and brotherhood into the brand.

"We used to design using only this area," Hirai says, pointing at his head. "But now we have to use this area as well," he adds, indicating his heart. "The whole concept has to become more emotional. We need to deliver a lifestyle. We want people to buy our cars for design." Heartfelt words, for sure, though perhaps a little too spiced with corporate jargon. This does, though, raise the question of how far you can push the desire factor in a mass-produced brand. Both GM and Ford have worked hard to achieve this, but they, too, have had to buy into more evocative names such as Saab and Jaguar to attain this.

It is still difficult to envisage Toyota ever achieving the level of emotion it strives for, but for Lexus perhaps the car-maker has the chance to build on something special. Then again, this is a hugely powerful car-maker that seems to be overtaking the world. From the forthcoming tiny Aygo to the plushest Lexus saloons, Toyota has virtually every niche covered. With a push into the large SUV sector (including hybrids) it is even challenging US makers on their strongest home ground. One thing is for certain: Toyota's rivals should be afraid.

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