Kevin Hunter & the Transformation of Toyota Design

Arguably there is no auto company in the world that is literally redrawing the profiles in its massive portfolio of vehicles than Toyota Motor Corp. And Kevin Hunter, president of Calty, is a key part of that transformation.

The team at Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, California—as well as the Calty operation in Ann Arbor, Michigan—have been busy of late. The former is where much of the advanced work is done for developing future Toyota and Lexus vehicles. The Lexus LF-1 Limited concept, a flagship crossover, was introduced at the 2018 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. The work for that vehicle was done at Calty in California. And just a few hours later at NAIAS, the fifth-generation Toyota Avalon sedan, which was done by Calty in Michigan, was brought out in public for the first time.

The president of Calty is Kevin Hunter, who grew up in a suburb just west of Detroit and who went to school at the College for Creative Studies, which is figuratively (almost literally) down the street from Cobo Center in Detroit, where NAIAS is held.

We sat down with Hunter the day of the two reveals to get his insights into what they’re trying to accomplish at Calty. Without question, the designs for both brands have undergone a significant transformation within the past few years, and Hunter and his team were instrumental in many of the vehicles that Toyota and Lexus are putting on the road (e.g., the production designs for the 2018 Camry and the Lexus LC 500).

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No Boring Cars.
Much of the motive behind the fundamental change that’s been occurring starts at the top of the company, as Akio Toyoda has famously said that he no longer wants the company to produce “boring cars.” And there’s no better support for doing things more creatively when the president of the company, who happens to have his company’s name on the proverbial door (yes, his surname uses a “D” where the brand has a “T”), makes it something of a must.

Hunter acknowledges of the change, “A lot of it is Akio Toyoda,” explaining, “He’s pretty much given designers more freedom to create bolder statements. Let’s face it: our designs were pretty boring. We were making really good products, but not very exciting products.”

Realize that Hunter has been at Calty since 1982, so the frank admission of creating high-quality but low-excitement vehicles isn’t a trivial remark.

One of the internal issues was a concern with polarizing customers by coming out with something that might be deemed to be too extreme. Now, it is somewhat different. “We’re OK with polarization. We just have to get enough people to love what we’re doing.”

That is, although Hunter says that they’re “taking more risk, creating more bold design statements,” they’re still in the business of designing, engineering, producing and selling cars, crossovers and trucks. So the objective isn’t to offend, but to come up with designs for products that people can feel passionate about. To use an analogy: people may like vanilla ice cream, but they undoubtedly love cookies ‘n cream or something more extreme.

But there is more to it than just having the green light from the executive suite.

Hunter says that a lot of it comes from working with other functions within the Toyota organization so that the stylists and designers can actually do something interesting. He says, “We were having engineering packages dropped off.” They were told what the wheelbase, overhangs, width, cowl position, etc. were. And then they were expected to style the car. Hunter explains that once the package is set, what can be done is pretty much constrained. “We’re involved early now with the engineering teams.” This allows Calty input regarding the parameters. He says that Calty designers were involved in the TNGA architecture—which is now underpinning things from the Prius to the Camry (and, yes, the new Avalon uses it, too)—an undertaking that would have certainly been the purview of engineers alone in the not-too-distant past.

Lexus. Ah, Youth.
Of the two brands, Lexus has clearly been taking the most risks, particularly with the “spindle grille” design (yes, the LF-1 has it), although Hunter says that they’re still pursuing, though moderated, the “L-finesse” design language (which debuted on the third-generation GS sedans introduced in calendar ’05). “We’ve tried to hone that recently,” he comments about L-finesse. “To inject some more excitement into our designs we’ve created the term ‘Brave Design.’ We want to take some chances with what we are doing.”

He cites the highly expressive LC-500, which several have described as looking like a concept car even though it is in production, as a good example of how they’re taking styling risks, and the LF-1 as the next iteration.

“Lexus is a young brand,” Hunter says. (Lexus was established in 1989. The LS 400 made its debut in Detroit that year at the auto show—and ’89, coincidentally, was the first year that what had been simply the “Detroit Auto Show” became NAIAS.)

“I think we have a better shot at moving quickly and being more innovative than other older brands that carry a lot of baggage around with them.”

There’s not all upside to having heritage in the premium space, it seems.
“Toyota brand,” Hunter admits, “is challenging because we create so many products globally.”

n the case of Toyota, the design direction is called “Vibrant Clarity,” which Hunter explains means something that has a sense of energy but has a clear sense of purpose.

Talking Trucks.
One of the areas of focus in North America is on truck design, the Tacoma and Tundra in particular. Hunter says that they’re using what they call a “hexagon theme” on the front ends, and working for a more chiseled design throughout.

“We want to create a strong brand identity for our trucks and SUVs, especially in the rugged, active area—which is what Toyota created in the midsize truck segment, with the Tacoma.” (Although there is increasing competition in the midsize space with the Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon, as well as the continuation of the Nissan Frontier, the Tacoma remains dominant: according to Autodata, in 2017 Toyota sold 198,125 Tacomas, which represents 47.4 percent of the segment. And it is interesting to note that it has actually grown its numbers, as in 2016 there were 191,631 units sold, or 45.1 percent of the market.)

But given perennial best-sellers like the Camry and the Corolla, there are still the sedans that have to be addressed head-on, which Hunter acknowledges are “more challenging” than the crossovers and trucks. (How challenging? Well, with 2017 sales of 387,081 units, the Camry was the best-selling car in the U.S. for its 16th year running, but the Toyota RAV4 bested it for the first time, with sales of 407,594: despite the sales crown, in the Toyota lineup the change could be prelude to continued crossover strength: in 2016 the Camry outsold the RAV4 by 36,477 units.) The eighth-generation Camry introduced last year is certainly a completely reimagined “Camry,” no longer being a design that anyone could apply the moniker “appliance” to.

And there’s the 2019 Avalon. Hunter says this is a good example of what they’re calling “under priority” on the front end. “Instead of having a big grille that’s top-to-bottom,” he explains, “we focus on the lower for our statement about cooling intake.” Which visually lowers and widens the front of the vehicle.

Envisioning Tomorrow.
At the 2017 CES in Las Vegas, Toyota revealed the Concept-i, a vehicle for 2030 styled by Calty and developed along with people from Toyota Innovation Hub in San Francisco, as the car is as much a communication device (for the driver, passenger and outside world) as it is a transportation device. The Concept-i, for all of its advanced technology including Yui, an artificial intelligence-based interface, still is a car to be driven by a human driver (certainly there are automated driving capabilities, but there is still a 
steering wheel).

For the 2018 CES, Calty designers came up with something completely different, the e-Palette, a fully automated electric vehicle that is more like the box that a Concept-i might be shipped in than the Concept-i: the e-Palette is designed to be used primarily for shipping and shopping, logistics and lunch: it is, in a term coined by a mobility designer some years ago, a COW: Container on Wheels. Toyota is working with companies including Amazon and Pizza Hut on the e-Palette and the digital infrastructure behind it.

The point is that Hunter and his team in the U.S., as well as the extended team of designers that Toyota has located around the world, are transforming the designs of what Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks are today, and what they could conceivably be tomorrow.

Hunter says: “I hope that in whatever we do there is some artistic, expressive, emotional thing in it that feels wonderful. Having said that, it is a new world for young people. They might wonder why anyone wants to drive their own car.”

That said, they are dedicated to making that ownership or driver experience worth it: “We’re making objects of desire. Everything we do we want to be beautiful and stunning.”