Watching The First Hybrid Corolla Come Off Line In Japan

The first hybrid Corollas - in grey and white, of course

The first hybrid Corollas – in grey and white, of course

When Toyota launched the Corolla Hybrid onto the Japanese market a few weeks ago, they discreetly pointed out to me that “unlike what we usually do,” this is simply marketed as an engine package, not as a separate model. Some may think this is because there is no shortage of separate Toyota models on the Japanese market. I see it as a step towards Toyota’s mainstreamification of the hybrid powertrain. On Friday, I went to Toyota’s plant in Ohira, Miyagi, to see the first Corolla Hybrid come off line.


Ohira’s right-sized Mayor receives Prius plug-in from Akio Toyoda

Until Toyota came to town, Ohira’s only claim to fame was that it is the only independent village in all of Miyagi prefecture, everything else is either towns or cities. Everything in Ohira is small, including its Mayor. Also in the town hall is a photograph where Toyota’s president Akio Toyoda hands over the keys of a Prius plug-in hybrid to His Honor. Akio is no giant, but he clearly towers over Mayor Atobe Masahiro.

Ohira lies some 16 miles and $130 for the taxi driver (do NOT believe that the yen is undervalued) from Sendai. The plant had an ominous start. Four weeks after it was opened in February 2011, Sendai and much of the Tohoku coast was hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The plant itself is built well and was relatively unscathed. Nonetheless, it had to stop production. First, because no gas was flowing. The gas was needed to dry the paint. Then, the plant shut down with all the other Toyota facilities while waiting for a resumption of parts deliveries.

Also near Sendai is the Naka plant of Renesas. It did not fare as well as the Ohira factory. Renesas is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of flashable microcontrollers, the little brains that are inside of more products than we imagine. Renesas supplied some 20 percent of the world’s automotive microcontroller market. About 70 percent of the production was sold to Japanese automakers, the remaining 30 percent went to US and European car companies. The plant looked like it was hit by several bombs. It looked like it would not ship chips before the end of the year. Four weeks later, and with the help of thousands of people brought in from all over Japan, the plant was working again.

The batteries

The battery/ Small enough to fit under the rear seat.

This is not forgotten, but not on top of the mind anymore this Friday in Ohira. Today is the day hybrid technology comes to town. Hybrids are a big hit in Japan. Toyota’s Prius has been on top of Japan’s sales charts since 2009. It recently has been toppled by its Aqua sibling, which is sold in the U,.S. as the Prius c. When the plant opened two years ago, reporters wanted to know when hybrids come to Ohira. Finally, it has arrived.

In the plant itself, very little had to change to accommodate the new technology. The plant is a flexibility marvel.

A regular car factory usually has below ground pits for the motors, chains and gears that keep the line moving. In Ohira, the cars move on maybe a foot high conveyor system that is simply bolted into the concrete flooring. Cheaper to build, cheaper to tear down and rebuild somewhere else. The line can be lengthened or shortened at will. The assembly line doesn’t “grow roots” as they say in Toyota-speak.

The cars no longer dangle from the ceiling

The cars no longer dangle from the ceiling

The cars no longer dangle from the ceiling while parts are attached from below. They roll on a simple raised platform. This reduces the ceiling height of the factory. Advantage: 50 percent of the investment saved, says Toyota. A side effect of the non-dangling is that people can work on a stationary object, instead on one that dangles.

Usually, cars move along an assembly line in a vertical line, as if they already are sitting in a slow-moving traffic jam. Not in Ohira. Here, the cars move sideways. Think of a parking lot down at the mall. Now move the parking lot to the right. Advantage: With the cars moving sideways instead of straight ahead, the line can be 35 percent shorter. The factory can be smaller. The expenses are lower.

The paint spray line of a car factory usually is a highly complex system that is built in place. Very expensive parts and experts have to be flown in. Not in Ohira. For Ohira, Toyota developed a modular paint spray line. The modules can be built somewhere else and are assembled at the plant in a much shorter time. Advantage: Cost savings.

Ohira is a secretive plant

Ohira is a secretive plant

The Ohira plant is a secretive plant. “No photo! No sketch!” warns a slide. The ubiquitous camera-equipped smartphones get a little sticker to cover the camera. Photo-ops are limited to three stations, and reprimands are handed out if the camera points in the wrong direction.

While never officially confirmed, it is widely understood that Ohira is a pilot plant where production technology is developed and confirmed before it is rolled out all over the world.

Toyota’s global bestseller, the Corolla, is not very important in Japan. On the January through July Japanese sales chart, the Corolla sits in rank 8. However, it is THE strategic model for Toyota’s continued growth and its further expansion into the world’s emerging markets. The Corollas that are made in Ohira are not for export. The export article is the production technology developed for and in Ohira.

Hybrid technology may top the charts in Japan, in the rest of the world, it definitely does not. The market share of all hybrid cars sits in the 3 percent range in the U.S. In diesel-enamored Europe, the market share of hybrid vehicles remains below the detection threshold in most countries. In China and the world’s emerging markets, hybrids play even less of a role. This is beginning to change. Experts agree that Europe’s ambitious emission goals need hybrid technology to be met. China is dropping its fruitless fixation on EVs and is moving towards hybrid. Toyota’s internal goal is that hybrid powertrains are mainstream by the end of the decade: Small enough in price to be affordable. Small in package size to fit in most cars. Big in savings.

Final inspection

Final inspection

The hybrid-engined Corolla is very close to all that. It may only be meant for the Japanese market. But like so often in Ohira, it is also proof of the concept that a hybrid powertrain can be fitted to just about any car the world over.

Text and all pictures by Bertel Schmitt, Tokyo

Toyota Launches Hybrid Corolla, Keeps It In Japan

Longtime Kaizen Factor readers are probably well aware of our deep respect for and debt of gratitude towards Asia-based, English-writing automotive correspondents whose scoops, insights and opinions have informed a number of our stories. Chief among them are freelance journalist Peter Lyon, Automotive News’ Asia editor Hans Greimel and former editor-in-chief of The Truth About Cars Bertel Schmitt, whose personal and insightful report on the Japanese domestic market launch of the Toyota Corolla Axio Hybrid sedan and Corolla Fielder Hybrid wagon we are very pleased and privileged to bring you.

Corolla Hybrid JDM Launch - Bertel Schmitt -143

Today, Toyota launched its hybrid version of the Corolla in Tokyo. It was done in the trademark frugal style of Toyota JDM car launches: A sparse meeting room in the building that houses Japan’s auto manufacturer association JAMA, a PowerPoint projector, a small bottle of water per reporter, that was it. No smoke, no dancing girls, the cars had to be viewed outside in the driveway. If you are used to the hullabaloo of American car launches, you would have been shocked. If you are part of the Tokyo press corps, you don’t know it any other way. TMC’s hefty profits have a few reasons, and cutting out of muda, elimination of the dreaded waste, is one of them.

Toyota’s 11th generation Corolla was launched onto the Japanese market in May 2012, with a spiffier and bigger U.S. model following a few months ago (this time with American aplomb). Much to the chagrin of parts of the media, no hybrid versions of the Corolla were offered. Today, with as little fanfare as possible, this was changed. At least as far as the Japanese market is concerned.

Corolla Hybrid JDM Launch - Bertel Schmitt -096When the new Corolla was launched in 2012, the thinking at TMC went that 21.4 km/liter for the Axio sedan with idling stop (stop-start) was frugal enough. The Japanese customer, however, had a different opinion, and demanded a hybrid powertrain, Toyota’s deputy chief engineer Hiroshi Nakamura tells me on this hot and muggy Tokyo morning. Toyota went on a crash program. In a record one year and two months, the Corolla had a hybrid powertrain, and the demanding Japanese customer sees its wishes fulfilled.

Equipped with Toyota’s 1NZ-FXE 1.5-liter THS II hybrid system with reduction gear, both the Axio sedan version and the Fielder wagon variant of the Corolla achieve a fuel efficiency of 33.0 km/liter under Japan’s (notoriously optimistic, we spare you the EPA conversions) JC08 test cycle. The results come very close to the Prius c (sold in Japan as the Aqua), which sports a 35.4 km/l rating.

TMC’s engineers shrunk the formerly bulky hybrid system down to a compact package that easily fits into a compact car without taking up precious space, leaving interior room and trunk space unimpeded by the hybrid system. Hybrid battery and fuel tank are tucked away under the rear seat. The tank lost only 6 liters (1.6 gallons) versus the all-gasoline model, and it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. The theoretical range of the hybrid Axio is 1,188 km (738 miles) on a single tank, 289 km (179 miles) more than the all-gasoline model.

Corolla Hybrid JDM Launch - Bertel Schmitt -124The cost of the hybrid system has come down, but it still comes at a premium. When the regular Axio went on sale last year, it started at 1,357,000 yen. The hybrid version costs upwards from 1,925,000 yen, remaining below the psychologically important 2 million yen (US$20,000) barrier. The Hybrid G Aerotourer WxB special edition Corolla Fielder with a stylish black interior and a faux carbon fiber dash costs 2,340,000 yen.

It may have taken Toyota only a year and two months to react to the market forces, but they have been evident for a while. Toyota’s Prius has been on top of Japan’s sales charts since 2009. It recently has been toppled by its Aqua sibling, which is sold in the U,.S. as the Prius c. In the first seven months of the year, the Aqua sold 160,993 units in Japan, followed by the Prius with 155,539 units. Taken together, the Prius and the Aqua, a.k.a. Prius c, sell three times more than the 3rd-placed Nissan Note in Japan. In the much larger U.S. market, all Prii together sold 138,477 units January through July, that’s less than half of the Japanese volume. The market share of all hybrid cars wallows in the 3 percent range in the U.S.

This may be the reason why the hybrid Corolla should remain a Japanese phenomenon until further notice. Toyota’s spokesfolk said today that there are no plans to sell a hybrid Corolla outside of the country, and that the Prius is seen as carrying the hybrid flag for a while. As the example of the Corolla shows, these opinions can change with the market, and with sinking price premiums of the hybrid system.

The hybrid Corolla will be built in Toyota’s Miyagi plant, which assembles hybrid cars for the first time. 2,500 units of the monthly run rate of 8,000 JDM Corollas are expected to sell with the hybrid power-train. The car can use a little lift in Japan. The global bestseller is an also-ran at home in Nippon. On the January through July Japanese sales chart, the Corolla sits in rank 8.

Corolla Hybrid JDM Launch - Bertel Schmitt -116

Article and all photos by Bertel Schmitt

The 2013 Toyota, Lexus and Scion “launch list” gets tweaked yet again!

number_9_answer_3_xlargeAnother day, another set of teaser hints and pronouncements over what new or revised vehicles Toyota, Scion and Lexus will introduce during the 2013 calendar year. First, on 11 September 2012, Toyota Division U.S.A. group vice president and general manager Bill Fay predicted that “seven, exciting all-new or updated Toyota and Scion vehicles (will be unveiled) in 2013″. Then, on 3 January 2013, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Lentz stated that “Nine all-new or significantly updated models (will be unveiled)”…Beginning this month with RAV4, followed later this year by the Lexus IS and Scion tC, just to name a few. Now, on the sidelines of the International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas on Monday 7 January, The Detroit News‘ David Shepardson cites senior vice president for automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales USA Bob Carter as saying that

Toyota plans 9 new vehicle launches for 2013 — including five for its Toyota brand, one for Scion and three for Lexus, after 12 new or refreshed models in 2012.

Twelve new or refreshed models in 2012? Wasn’t it 19? Well, the 19 for 2012 consisted of 12 Toyotas, 6 Lexus and one Scion, so it seems Carter was only referring to Toyotas. So, if we work from the third set of clues given by a high-ranking Toyota official in less than 4 months, plus our previous sleuthing and that of other pundits, the list would consist of the

Toyota Highlander – All-new 3rd-generation. This time, we’re combining all variants of the Highlander, hybrid and non-hybrid alike, into one entry.

Toyota Tundra – More likely a semi-extensive second mid-life facelift for the current 2nd-generation model, as opposed to an all-new 3rd-gen.

Toyota Corolla – All-new 11th-generation, expected as a sedan only, with the Matrix hatchback variant failing to see a third generation.

Toyota 4Runner – A mid-life refresh to the current 5th-generation model originally launched in September 2009.

Toyota Sequoia – As with the Tundra, an extensive second facelift for the current 2nd-generation model, as opposed to an all-new 3rd-gen. If this is pushed back to the 2014 calendar year, then Toyota was counting hybrid and non-hybrid versions of the Highlander separately after all.

Lexus IS – All-new 3rd-generation, officially confirmed to debut in just over a week at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show.

Lexus GX – A mid-life facelift for the current 2nd-generation that originally debuted in November 2009.

Lexus NX – Believed to debut at one or more of the major fall 2013 auto shows (Frankfurt, Tokyo or Los Angeles), Lexus’ newest model line is a compact crossover SUV smaller than the brand’s most popular model, the RX. Like the latest Toyota RAV4 from whence it’s expected to derive, the NX 200t and NX 300h launch (from public introduction to press preview to on-sale date) will probably encompass two calendar years.

And the Scion? It is interesting to note that Bob Carter is confirming our notion of a single new or refreshed model for the brand for 2013, as opposed to Automotive News‘ insistence on two new models. While Jim Lentz tells us to expect nothing more than a mid-term refresh for the current 2nd-generation tC, is Scion really going to celebrate it’s 10th anniversary only with something so anticlimactic? Or did he misspeak, leaving us to hold out hope for a new-generation 5-door hatchback instead? Well, if Scion once misidentified the FR-S manual transmission code on its press preview materials, perhaps they also erred in identifying their big news for 2013.

Besides reporting Bob Carter’s clues regarding the 9 new models for this year, David Shepardson also obtained the first official confirmation we’ve seen that

…the new (Furia) concept Toyota will show at the North American International Auto Show will be the basis — at least in part — for the new Corolla…

“You’ll see the concept of the Corolla,” Carter said, saying it will have “some of the elements” of what the new Corolla will look like. “We’re looking at styling of the vehicle in a way for the youth of today. Corolla has always been a youth car.”

Ummm…did he really say that with a straight face?

Informed speculation: the 7 all-new or updated Toyota and Scion vehicles for 2013

7 imagesCA6G017NAs the calendar turns from 2012 to 2013 and we look back at our previous predictions (some dating back to 2010) on what new or revised models Toyota, Scion and Lexus models were launched, we are reminded that Toyota is a company that is always Moving Forward, even though its new tagline is “Let’s Go Places”. Quite apropos, as buried in the 11 September 2012 news release announcing the new ad and communications tagline was a new round of product predictions. As Toyota Division group vice president and general manager Bill Fay noted,

(We will unveil) seven, exciting all-new or updated Toyota and Scion vehicles in 2013

Longtime Kaizen Factor readers know that we take these proclamations as a challenge to come up with a precise list of the vehicles in question. A couple of things seem crystal-clear: Lexus is specifically excluded from this prediction (their 2013 calendar year new releases are expected to be the 3rd-generation IS sedans, the GX SUV’s mid-life facelift and the new, sub-RX crossover SUV line, the NX); and the fact that it was uttered by a Toyota USA official means no Japanese domestic market or Europe-only models are part of the 7.

Unlike our previous Informed Speculation articles, where we were mostly on our own as far as deducing what went on the lists, this time there is more internet chatter on what the precise models are, mostly via Mark Rechtin of Automotive News. At the 4th-generation Toyota Avalon press preview in early November, he chatted with Toyota U.S.A.’s vice president of marketing Jack Hollis, who revealed that

The Avalon…will be followed by redesigns of the Toyota RAV4 and Highlander crossovers, Tundra full-sized pickup and Corolla compact sedan. A midcycle update for the 4Runner also is planned…

The redesigned RAV4 is expected in the first quarter of 2013; the Highlander and Tundra are coming the second quarter, and the Corolla is scheduled to arrive in the third quarter…

In addition, Toyota’s Scion brand has its xB and xD hatchbacks scheduled for renewals, either as a redesign or an entirely new product category.

Without further ado, here are our predictions:

Corolla badgeToyota Corolla
After the 11th-generation (E160) Corolla’s 2012 calendar year debut in Japan (in sedan, wagon and Auris hatchback guises), Europe and Oceania (Australia/New Zealand), North America patiently waits its turn. And it looks like we may have to wait a bit longer. Once touted as a shoo-in for a 2013 Detroit Auto Show unveiling, the announcement of the Monday 14 January 2013 debut of the Toyota Furia Concept at the show turned that notion on its head. The final scene (shot above right) of its pyromaniac’s delight teaser video shows the side profile of what appears to be a C-segment front-wheel-drive sedan such as the Corolla. And, indeed, there is near-unanimity among pundits (this author included) that Furia is a preview of the 2014 Corolla sedan for North America. Thus, we’d be surprised if the production version of the newest 11th-gen Corolla iteration is officially revealed any earlier than the 2013 New York Auto Show press conferences on Wednesday 27 and Thursday 28 March.

As with most if not all recent Toyota and Lexus new-generation launches, we expect the new Corolla to use a carryover engine from its predecessor, in this case the 2ZR-FE 1.8 liter, 4-cylinder engine. If Oceania’s new Corolla Hatchback (Auris) is anything to go by, it may receive a slight 4 hp bump, to 136. Transaxles, though, may be a different story. Again referencing Oceania and other markets that have seen the newest Corolla, the current woefully obsolete 5-speed manual and 4-speed automatic will, in all likelihood, be replaced by a 6-speed manual and a Multidrive CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). Yes, it’s more likely than not that the Corolla will become the second non-hybrid (besides the Scion iQ) Toyota CVT application in North America. Whether any of them (such as a sporty Corolla model) will use the Multidrive S with 7-speed sport sequential manumatic mode and paddle shifters remains to be seen.

Speaking of sporty Corolla models, we hope the current tepid Corolla S model gives way to a proper Corolla SE that follows the lead of current Yaris, Camry and Sienna SE variants in going beyond the merely cosmetic and offering meaningful firmer suspension and steering tweaks. And what about a return of the Corolla XRS with the 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder 2AR-FE engine as a rival to the Honda Civic Si, Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen GTI? Don’t count on it, much as we’d like to see it. Another losing bet is on a third generation of the Toyota Matrix, as Toyota Division group vice president and general manager Bill Fay told Mark Rechtin of Automotive News, “If we don’t have the Matrix, it won’t be the end of the world.” Thus, it seems that the Toyota brand will join the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra in not offering a C-segment 5-door hatchback body style in the United States. No biggie, for the Scion brand will probably take up the slack. More baffling is Fay’s contention that the Matrix will continue to be available in Canada. Will the aging 2nd-generation E140 Matrix soldier on alongside the newer E160 Corolla sedan in the Great White North? Or might the Green Car Reports‘ John Voelcker be on to something when he suggests that the new E160 Auris might be imported into Canada as a Matrix replacement?

Highlander badgeToyota Highlander
With Toyota’s Camry and Avalon and the Lexus ES having been renewed within the past year or so, it is now their K-platform Highlander sibling’s turn for a new generation. Although any growth spurt would probably be slight, at least the discontinuation of the V6 and 3rd-seat options from the North American RAV4 makes for much less overlap between the two. The 3.5-liter 2GR-FE V6 should be largely carryover. Whether the base 2.7-liter 4-cylinder 1AR-FE engine survives in the next Highlander is an open question, given that in the latest Sienna minivan the 4-cylinder option was a barely more fuel economical resounding flop that was only offered for 2 model years. For the V6, it is a given that the current 5-speed automatic transaxle will give way to the U660E 6-speed auto currently used in the latest Camry, Avalon and ES V6s.

The current 2nd-generation Highlander is an anomaly that, like the Toyota Zelas/Scion tC and Lexus ES, is built (as a hybrid and for export to a handful of markets outside North America) but not sold in Japan. Going forward, however, that will change. As a February 2012 press release informs us:

Toyota will increase production of the Highlander mid-size SUV in late 2013 at the company’s Princeton, Indiana (USA) plant. Hybrid and export versions will be included…

The company will invest about $400 million to support global demand for the Highlander, which will no longer be built in Japan by late 2013. Toyota builds Highlander in China for that market only…

Highlander is currently sold in Russia and Australia, and TMMI will export to those countries.

Speaking of Australia, in that market the Highlander still bears the horrible, Freddy Kruegeresque Kluger nameplate, due to a conflict with a Highlander trim level for the Hyundai Terracan SUV that was discontinued in 2007. Might the Australian nomenclature finally align with that for the rest of the world?

Given the newest Corolla’s preview by the Furia concept and Jack Hollis’ assertion that the 3rd-generation Highlander will go on sale in the 2nd quarter of 2013, might this be the major production Toyota debut for the 2013 Detroit Auto Show?

2013_Toyota_Highlander_Hybrid_007_46257_2524_lowToyota Highlander Hybrid
As noted above, the big news regarding the 3rd-generation of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is the shift in sourcing from Japan’s Kyushu facility to the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana, Inc. (TMMI) plant in the U.S. This makes it the first Toyota hybrid to be built in the Hoosier state.

We suspect that the 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder 2AR-FXE hybrid gasoline-electric powertrain from the current Camry, Avalon and Lexus ES would be marginal in the bulkier and heavier Highlander, but would an extra 178cc, 8 hp and 15 lb/ft of torque make the difference? Those are the approximate benefits from hybridizing the current base Highlander’s slightly larger 1AR-FE 2.7-liter four to create an Atkinson cycle hybrid 1AR-FXE. Useful as they may be, though, we suspect that the next Highlander Hybrid will carry on with the current 2GR-FXE 3.5-liter V6 hybrid powertrain.

Given all this emphasis on U.S.-only sourcing, we expect the latest Highlander to join the Avalon and RAV4 EV in having an American chief engineer.

Tundra_Double_Cab-prvToyota Tundra
The current, 2nd-generation of the space shuttle-towing Toyota Tundra full-size pickup truck made its debut at the February 2006 Chicago Auto Show. Since then, it has seen a minor facelift coupled with the replacement of the “middle option” 4.7-liter 2UZ-FE V8 engine with the newer, more powerful yet more economical 4.6-liter 1UR-FE V8 for the 2010 model year. We expect its latest version to debut 7 years later, during the Thursday 7 and Friday 8 February media preview for the 2013 Chicago Auto Show.

By most accounts, don’t expect a totally new, 3rd-gen Tundra to emerge. Rather, we should expect to see something akin to the extensive second facelifts applied to the 3rd-generation (XX30) Toyota Avalon in April 2010 for the 2011 model year; or to the 4th-generation (XF40) Lexus LS for the 2013 model year. Or, in the words of Motor Trend

…a source confirmed to us that the Tundra’s updates will be purely aesthetic and quite minimal – don’t expect to see any updates to the truck’s powertrains.

This is partially contradicted by Mark Rechtin of Automotive News‘ predictions dating back to last August:

Toyota will call (the spring 2013 re-engineering) a full redesign, but the V8 powertrains and suspension will remain the same, and the ladder frame dimensions won’t change much…

Expect Toyota to start pushing the 4.0-liter V6 version hard for corporate average fuel economy reasons, using direct injection to boost horsepower from its current 270 to more than 300. A larger fuel tank will increase range. Expect more “trucky” styling.

Finally! A long-overdue 1GR-FSE direct-injected 4-liter V6. We wonder if it will feature dual (D4-S) direct+port injection or go direct injection-only like the 2.5-liter 4GR-FSE V6. And would a V6 that powerful threaten to make the small 4.6-liter V8 redundant?

In comparison to the recent activity surrounding Detroit 3 full-size pickup trucks, then, expect something more akin to the 2013 Ford F-150 and Ram 1500 refreshes than an all-new generation like the upcoming 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra.

4Runner_Trail-prvToyota 4Runner
The 5th-generation 4Runner was unveiled at the Texas State Fair on 24 September 2009, for the 2010 model year. Thus, it is due for a mid-life refresh for the traditional autumn 2013 kickoff of the 2014 model year. Primarily focused around new headlights, taillights, front grille inserts, exterior colors and interior tweaks, there may nevertheless be one significant change if Mark Rechtin’s Tundra prediction noted above holds true: the addition of direct (or dual direct+port) injection to the current 4-liter 1GR-FE V6 to create a 1GR-FSE successor.

Its overseas Toyota Land Cruiser Prado fraternal twin and its upmarket Lexus GX 460 derivative should similarly see a minor facelift, the latter becoming the latest Lexus to receive the signature spindle grille.

sequoia-platinum-badge-3Toyota Sequoia
Where the Toyota Tundra goes, its Sequoia full size sport utility vehicle offshoot soon follows. Although not explicitly mentioned in the latest round of “new Toyota” predictions, the suggestion of a 2014 model year “re-engineering” by Rechtin would imply a Tundra-like makeover to appear no later than the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show press previews on Wednesday 20 and Thursday 21 November. For reference, the 2nd-generation Tundra made its public debut at the February 2006 Chicago Auto Show but did not go into production until a full year later, on February 2007. In contrast, the 2nd-gen Sequoia first appeared at the November 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show but went into production the following month. Thus, our prediction is not particularly far-fetched.

Given that the Sequoia is probably too large and heavy for even an upgraded 1GR-FSE V6, don’t expect much more than a revised front end, taillights and wheels, with a couple of new exterior colors and some interior tweaks thrown in for good measure.

scion_bdg_ns_102612_717New Scion hatchback (xD successor?)
Historically, Scion’s two 5-door hatchback offerings have marched together in lockstep. The original 2004 xA and xB debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show on 2 January 2003 and both went on sale together, starting with 105 Toyota dealerships in California on 6 June of that year. Their successors, the xD and the 2nd-generation xB were both unveiled on 16 December 2006 at an invitation-only, no-camera event in Miami, Florida, followed by their joint public reveal on 8 February 2007 at the Chicago Auto Show. Soon thereafter, however, each went their own way. The xD went on sale in early August 2007 and soon settled into a routine groove of traditional late summer/early fall (between August and October) annual model changes. In contrast, the larger 2nd-gen xB was all over the map…er…calendar when transitioning from one model year to the next. After its debut in early May 2007 (3 months ahead of its xD sibling), it followed a March/April pattern for release of the following model years until 2011, when the 2012 xB was pushed back to July (thus creating a 16-month 2011 model year). Another 16-month (if not even longer) 2012 model year is in store, given that the 2013 model year xB, in Scion’s words, “will begin arriving in dealerships early next year” (the 2013 calendar year).

In light of this, we’re going to agree to disagree with Mark Rechtin’s contention that replacements for both the xB and xD will be introduced at the New York Auto Show in March. Would Scion really replace the xB so soon after the 2013 model goes on sale? We’ll stick out our necks and say no, and suggest that Scion’s 10th-anniversary festivities will only include a single new model, and that the xD will be discontinued before the xB. We will agree, though, that we’ll likely see several new Release Series special editions during 2013 to celebrate 10 years of Scion. (This author will be rooting for an admittedly unlikely long-shot larger-engined, manual transmission Scion iQ micro-hot hatch).

Toyota’s traditional veil of secrecy becomes even more impenetrable when trying to figure out what the future holds for the Scion model range. Back in April, a teaser for a subscriber-only WardsAuto article quoted then-Scion vice president Jack Hollis as saying

We don’t have plans for a direct xB or xD replacement…Harkening back to the original brand tenet of “one-and-done” models, Scion won’t carry over the names of the xB and xD

Soon, the notion of rebadged Daihatsu models as part of the future of Scion took hold, and Mark Rechtin, in the latest iteration of his annual “future of Scion” predictions for Automotive News and AutoWeek agreed, suggesting that

There has been talk of reconfiguring the boxy, 100-inch wheelbase Daihatsu COO/Materia (a.k.a. Toyota bB), which is closer in size and design to the original xB that defined the Scion brand.

Because of the xD’s tepid sales, Scion is rethinking its entry in the segment. We may see something more like the Ractis mini-minivan from the Japan market. The new xD (successor) likely will arrive in the fall of 2013.

Other possibilities
In spite of having more clues and hints than ever, there is still an unexpected level of uncertainty hanging over these predictions. Does the Toyota RAV4, with a public reveal in November 2012 but an early 2013 start-of-manufacture and sales date truly belong on last year’s predictions list or on this one? Is Mark Rechtin right about 2 Scion debuts for 2013 versus our prediction for a single one? Is Toyota counting the Highlander as one entity this year as opposed to last year’s counting of hybrids and non-hybrid versions separately?

Speaking of hybrids, a number of pundits, such as Auto Express, Green Car Reports and WardsAuto have wondered about the possibility of a gasoline-electric RAV4. Auto Express quotes RAV4 Deputy Chief Engineer Yoshikazu Saeki as saying that

…a hybrid “would not be difficult to do. We are watching the market. After introducing the new RAV4 we will see. There will be a possibility of introducing a hybrid RAV4 and we will respond to what the market wants.”

while WardsAuto cites Toyota U.S.A vice president-marketing Bill Fay as saying that

A hybrid version of the RAV4 is possible, but not now. You never know what’s down the road, but nothing short-term.

Perhaps Toyota sees some overlap between the Prius v and a RAV4 Hybrid, even though the former is longer, lower and narrower than the new RAV4. Also, unlike RAV4, Prius v is unavailable with all-wheel-drive. Or is Toyota, in a sense, borrowing from the Ford playbook that saw it abandon the Escape crossover SUV hybrid in favor of a front-wheel-drive only C-Max Hybrid tall wagon?

The initial draft of this article had a 2014 model year mid-term facelift for the 3rd-generation Toyota Sienna not-so-minivan in place of the Sequoia, given that the outgoing Highlander got one after 3 model years. The current Toyota Venza, Tundra and 4Runner mid-life refreshes, on the other hand, didn’t happen until after the 4th model year, Thus, we walked away from that prediction.

Finally, my esteemed colleague Flipside909 keeps insisting on how long overdue the Tacoma not-so-compact pickup truck is for a new generation. To which Mark Rechtin (again?!) of Automotive News replies:

The Tacoma soldiers on until a fall 2014 redesign that is required for safety and emissions standards.

Ahhh…then we can start our 2014 calendar year predictions list with a Sienna facelift and a new-generation Tacoma…

TMC’s Environmental Technology Development update: a peek at Toyota and Lexus’ powertrain future (Part 1)

On Monday 24 September, what was ostensibly the press preview for the (very limited) production version of the battery electric variant of the Toyota iQ soon became, in the words of Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars, “the strangest product launch I have ever seen”. Given how much information the usually reticent Toyota revealed regarding its future powertrain plans, press coverage was equally strange, veering between overly simplistic and sensationalist sound bites. Toyota to Launch 21 New Hybrids and a New Fuel Cell Vehicle in the Next Three Years! Toyota drops plan for widespread sales of electric car! Toyota kills electric car plans, says ‘capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs’! Ultimately, only a trio of accounts of what transpired at the Universal Design Showcase of Tokyo’s MegaWeb are truly worth reading: the aforementioned Bertel Schmitt of The Truth About Cars‘ “you-are-there” report, Hans Greimel’s Automotive News/Autoweek story for its large number of exclusive tidbits of information and, if you’re really pressed for time, Jake Holmes of Motor Trend‘s summary of the full TMC Announces Status of Its Environmental Technology Development, Future Plans Toyota Global newsroom PDF document. If, however, you prefer deep-dive analysis, commentary, interpretation and informed speculation of the sort Kaizen Factor thrives on, stay with us as we deconstruct Toyota’s newest revelations.

A new 2AR-FXE with D-4S engine variant
The “enhanced engine for use in hybrid vehicles, based on the 2.5-liter AR gasoline engine, (adopting) the Atkinson cycle and D-4S system” is none other than a new D-4S (dual direct+port injection) variant of the 2AR-FXE 2.5-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson cycle hybrid engine used on the current Toyota Camry Hybrid and Lexus ES 300h. The existence of this engine was actually revealed a week earlier, in a Lexus USA Newsroom press release for the Lexus LF-CC concept. In a story for the my.IS website, yours truly figured that it would produce something in the vicinity of 220-225 total system horsepower (versus 200 total system horsepower for the port injection-only 2AR-FXE). Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development news release adds a couple of new bits of information. For one, the 2AR-FXE with D-4S achieves the world’s highest maximum thermal efficiency (38.5%), which translates into the engine producing more power and using less fuel, while wasting less heat.

Hans Greimel also informs us that this iteration of the 2AR-FXE engine will receive Denso’s newly-tweaked D-4S injectors that already appear in the 4th-generation Lexus GS and Scion FR-S/Toyota GT 86. In comparison to the original D-4S injectors that date back to 2006, the new ones use a slit-shaped (as opposed to the previous multihole) injector opening. This creates a richer fuel mixture inside the cylinder and results in 1% better fuel economy.

Toyota reveals that this engine will go on sale sometime during calendar year 2013 in an undisclosed vehicle. Greimel, however, suggests that the Japanese domestic market’s Toyota Crown Hybrid will be the first recipient of the new powerplant. Makes sense, as this would allow for some closer-to-home experience before exporting it in the Crown’s platform-mates, the rumored (and trademarked) Lexus GS 300h and IS 300h versions of the 4th-gen GS and 3rd-gen IS, respectively. Given current rumors that the IS 300h, like the outgoing IS 200d and IS 220d, will only be sold in Europe, expect a debut for the Lexus variants at either the 2013 Geneva Motor Show (press previews on Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 March) or, later in the year, at the Frankfurt Motor Show (press previews on Tuesday 10 and Wednesday 11 September).

Beyond its initial applications in Toyota’s new rear-wheel-drive N-platform (launched with the 4th-generation Lexus GS and expected to spread to the upcoming 3rd-generation Lexus IS and 14th-generation [S210 or S220] Toyota Crown), will the 2AR-FXE with D-4S hybrid powertrain eventually migrate to the myriad front-wheel-drive K-platform Toyota Camry derivatives that use the AR 4-cylinder engines? Could be…

A turbocharged 3AR-FTE or (better yet) 3AR-GTE?!
In what is perhaps the biggest surprise of the Environmental Technology Development announcement, Toyota informs us that

Starting 2014, TMC plans to launch a vehicle with a new 2.0-liter, turbo-charged AR engine, also based on the 2.5-liter AR gasoline engine. The new engine’s smaller displacement will provide higher fuel efficiency while the turbocharger will improve output.

In other words, Toyota is meeting the challenge laid down by Volkswagen, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler/Fiat, among others, in going the smaller displacement with a turbo route, all the better to “game” the U.S. EPA fuel economy cycle (and its European and Japanese counterparts) into producing lower consumption numbers realistically achievable only if you drive 24/7 like Grandma on a day she forgot to eat her breakfast. Step on it, spool the turbo up to full boost, and you’ll use more gas than in the naturally-aspirated 2.5, but I digress…

As we noted back in December 2011,

When looking back at Toyota’s boosted gasoline powerplants, the company’s history is akin to Audi’s, with a mix of turbocharging (Supra, 2nd-generation MR2, Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo/GT-Four) and supercharging (1st-generation MR2, TRD aftermarket kits and Australia’s Aurion TRD). The new millennium, however, has seen nothing but superchargers.

Thus, it’s a 180 degree, back-to-the-future turn for Toyota to turbocharge, as opposed to supercharging, its AR 4-cylinder engine.

Deducing what engine code the new 2-liter AR turbo will use is a fairly straightforward matter. As is the case for Toyota and Lexus’ GR V6 engine family, the smaller the first number, the larger the engine displacement, and vice-versa. The 1AR-FE is a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine that debuted in Toyota’s current Venza and Highlander, made a brief appearance in the current Sienna minivan and is also available in the Asian-market Lexus RX 270. The 2AR-FE is its smaller 2.5-liter variant (shown above left) that is available in Toyota’s RAV4 and Camry, the Scion tC coupe and the new throwback-badged Lexus ES 250 for the Chinese market. The 2AR-FXE, of course, is the hybrid version we discussed earlier. Thus, a 2-liter version will be a 3AR. The “F”, per Wikipedia, denotes an economy narrow-angle valve DOHC (dual overhead camshaft) head, while a “G” would make it a performance wide-angle valve DOHC. A “T” for turbo is, of course, obligatory, as is the final “E” for electronic fuel injection. Thus, it would be a 3AR-FTE if it’s more economy-oriented or a 3AR-GTE if it’s performance-oriented. Sure, we definitely prefer the latter, but should also note Toyota GT 86 chief engineer Tetsuya Tada’s thoughts on boost (again from our December 2011 article):

Tada-san favours the supercharger approach because it is simpler to achieve than increasing engine size and doesn’t wreck throttle response as turbocharging might. Indeed Toyota says that turbocharging along with four-wheel drive and wide tyres are what make sports cars boring to drive.

In other words, we suspect a more economy-oriented 3AR-FTE is likelier. As to what 2014 vehicle gets the honors of launching this engine, it’s anybody’s guess, but this author suspects some sort of obscure, low-production variant of the Corolla for the Japanese domestic market. I know our co-editor Flipside909 is rooting for it to power a Volkswagen GTI-rivaling son-of-Corolla FX16 GT-S. Or, perhaps, a non-hybrid Lexus CT 200t sporty hatchback with a proper manual transmission?

Another compelling question is whether or not the so-called 3AR-FTE will use D-4S dual direct+port injection. We suspect not, given the historical issues with aftermarket boost for Toyota’s GR-FSE V6s and how Subaru went direct injection-only when turbocharging the FA20 flat 4.

Toyota’s small ND diesel gets a reprieve for Europe
In our first article on the BMW/Toyota alliance, we figured that Toyota wouldn’t bother to reengineer its aging diesel engines to meet upcoming Euro 6 standards. It turns out we were wrong, at least insofar as the smallest of them all, the 1.4-liter 1ND-TV. As the carmaker informs us,

The adoption of newly developed exhaust gas cleaning technology enabled the engine to pass the Euro 6, one of the most stringent exhaust emission standards in the world. Vehicles equipped with the new diesel engine are planned for launch starting 2015.

Thus, expect the 1ND-TV to soldier on in Toyota’s Yaris, Auris, Corolla, iQ, Ractis/Verso-S and Urban Cruiser (Toyota ist/Scion xD) lines, as well as in India-built versions of the Etios and Etios Liva models. On the other hand, the press release is silent on the ultimate fate of Toyota’s medium-sized AD 4-cylinder diesels. Expect those to be replaced by BMW diesels as of 2014.

i-ART: another Toyota/Denso fuel injection breakthrough
Throughout this article, D-4S, the first-ever dual direct+port injection system pioneered by Toyota and automotive supplier Denso, has been a recurring theme. Flying under the radar, however, the latter (itself a member of the Toyota Group conglomerate) announced, in December 2011, the creation of i-ART (intelligent-Accuracy Refinement Technology) the world’s first autonomous closed-loop diesel fuel injection control system. In essence, this system equips each injector with a pressure sensor that communicates its fuel pressure to the engine ECU and, in doing so, significantly reduces exhaust emissions and increases fuel efficiency, compared with the conventional open-looped technology that does not have feedback function from the injectors. i-ART-equipped versions of the 3-liter 1KD-FTV 4-cylinder diesel debuted in the Brazilian market version of the Hilux pickup truck in April 2012. Given the ease with which a 2-liter diesel i-ART test unit met upcoming Euro 6 emisions standards, we wouldn’t be surprised if this technology spread throughout the KD diesel engine family (including the smaller 2.5-liter 2KD-FTV) and to other Toyota truck-based lines such as Land Cruiser Prado and Third World models such as Fortuner, Innova and Hiace. And, if this technology is so emissions-friendly, wouldn’t it be cool to see these diesels in North America’s expansive truck-based Toyota line, not to mention in Lexus’ GX as a rival to the German luxury diesel SUVs? Then again, 3 liters is awfully large for a 4-cylinder engine, and the Germans use 6 cylinder diesels in this size segment, at least in North America, so the KD might be a bit crude for Lexus duty…

Arrghh! Toyota’s CVTs spread beyond hybrids, Europe and Japan
As Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update shifts its focus from engines to transmissions, discussion begins with one of this author’s pet peeves: CVTs, or continuously variable transmissions. I’m still regretting the way in which the traditional manual transmission with a clutch pedal is becoming a dinosaur of an endangered species, but at least modern torque-converter automatic transmissions and so-called single and dual-clutch (but no clutch pedal) transmissions purport to maintain some level of driver control via “manumatic” modes, gates and paddle shifters. CVTs, on the other hand, are far less likely to offer these options. As of now, dissatisfaction with the “manual mode” paddle shift feel on the Lexus CT 200h’s CVT transaxle led to a decision to limit this option to the Japanese domestic market. Indeed, the so-called “rubber band feel” of CVTs and the way they hold high revs while the car barely seems to move is off-putting to many.

Yet, CVTs also have their virtues, fuel efficiency chief among them. They are also the best way to manage hybrid powertrains, as tepid reviews of hybrids with torque-converter automatics such as the Infiniti M and the Hyundai Sonata/Kia Optima fraternal twins can attest to. At any rate, a number of carmakers, such as Nissan and Subaru have staked their future on the CVT, and Honda and Audi also use them on some models. We certainly hold out hope that diligent engineering will result in future CVTs that…er…don’t suck, as Nissan seems determined to do.

Perhaps we’re dismissive because, in North America, the Scion iQ is the sole non-hybrid Toyota product using a CVT, whereas Japan and Europe offer a plethora of CVT-equipped models. In the latter market, so-called Multidrive (M/D) and paddle shifter-equipped Multidrive S (M/D S) models use the CVT. These, by the way, should not be confused with Multimode Manual Transmission (M/M) models that use a type of sequential manual transmission consisting of a traditional manual gearbox with an electronically controlled clutch (but no clutch pedal). The Environmental Technology Development press release touts

TMC’s newly developed continuously variable transmission, Super CVT-i, (that) has achieved both superior fuel efficiency and smooth acceleration due to its unsurpassed transmission efficiency, improved integrated engine control and reductions in both size and weight. The transmission, first installed on the Corolla for the Japanese market in June 2012, is planned for use on additional models, particularly in the compact segment.

Perhaps those additional models include the upcoming North American version of the 11th-generation (E160) Toyota Corolla.

From the folks that brought you the world’s first 8-speed automatic transmission, the world’s first 8-speed automatic transaxle
Back in 2006, Japan’s automatic transmission manufacturer Aisin AW rocked an automotive world accustomed to 4, 5 and 6-speed automatics by designing the TL-80SN, the first-ever 8-speed automatic transmission. Suitable for rear-wheel-drive applications, it debuted in the 2007 XF40 (4th-generation) Lexus LS 460. The AA80E transmission, as Toyota calls it, soon spread through their V8 car lineup, namely the Lexus IS F, the late, lamented Lexus GS 460 and the Toyota Crown Majesta. Nearly 2 years later, German automotive supplier ZF countered with its own 8-speed longitudinal automatic transmission, the 8HP. After launching with the 5th-generation (F01/F02) BMW 7-Series, the 8HP quickly spread to other brands such as Audi, Bentley, Chrysler, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls-Royce. Hyundai, meanwhile, developed its own 8-speed automatic for use in the Genesis and Equus lines.

Notice, though, that even the highly flexible ZF 8HP unit is a longitudinal transmission, used by Audi only in its longitudinally-engined lines (A4 thru A8), and not in its smaller (A3 and below, plus TT) transverse-engine models. Leave it, again, to Toyota and Aisin to follow up the pioneering TL-80SN / AA80E with the world’s first transversely-mounted 8-speed automatic transaxle, the U880F which premiered on the all-wheel-drive Lexus RX 350 F Sport SUV for the North American market in August 2012. And, stay tuned, for Toyota strongly hints that the U880, presumably in “regular” (front-wheel-drive) and F (AWD) iterations, should eventually spread throughout Lexus and Toyota’s FWD-centric models.

21 new hybrid models between now and the end of 2015
Among the numerous revelations contained in Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update, the claim you see above is among those that has been most widely reported and generated the most buzz. Yet, to our knowledge, no one has attempted to name the 21 vehicles. And, frankly, we’re not about to either, at least not in the in-depth manner in which we dared to guess at the 7 all-new hybrids, 4 revised existing hybrids and 19 new or revised models for North America due by the end of calendar year 2012. The nearly 3½-year time frame and the global (including Lexus) nature of this list makes even Kaizen Factor‘s crystal ball go all blurry and erratic. Further confusing things is what Toyota means by “now”. The Monday 24 September 2012 date of Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update? Or the August 2012 date mentioned in a couple of Toyota’s footnotes? This seemingly picayune point is key in determining whether or not the Lexus ES 300h, which went on sale in the United States and Canada during August 2012, is part of the list of 21.

Hans Greimel of Automotive News did note, however, that 14 will be either all-new nameplates or hybrid versions of vehicles that don’t currently come with an electric-gasoline option, leaving 7 next-generation, or full-model changes to existing hybrids. The latter are easier to guess at, and we figure that next-generation hybrid versions of Toyota Auris, Toyota Prius, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Estima (a primarily Japanese domestic market minivan that is a bit smaller than the Sienna), Toyota Crown, Lexus RX and Lexus LS are the likeliest 7.

And what about the 14 all-new nameplates or hybrid versions of vehicles that don’t currently offer an electric-gasoline option? These run the gamut from the obvious (The Toyota Avalon which will go on sale by the end of 2012 and the trademarked Lexus IS 300h) to the safe bet guesses to the flat-out speculative. And, speaking of Lexus, do rumored additional, alternate-engined versions of existing hybrids (think Lexus CT 300h, Lexus GS 300h or Lexus LS 450h) count separately among the 21?

Our previous Informed Speculation articles suggested hybrid versions of Toyota Avensis, Toyota Sienna, Toyota RAV4 and, perhaps, Toyota Venza. With the 11th-generation (E160) Corolla already available in Japan in a couple of variants and its Auris offshoot already hybridized, don’t be surprised if a Toyota Corolla hybrid becomes available. Don’t expect, however, a future version, hybrid or otherwise of the Toyota Matrix, which will die at the end of the 2013 model year.

Talk of a potential RAV4 hybrid reminds us that its upcoming 4th-generation (XA40) is expected to sire a Lexus sibling, which could wear the Lexus TX 300h moniker. And might the brand’s two recent hybrid concept coupes – LF-CC and LF-LC – lead to production versions bearing, say, Lexus IC 300h and Lexus LC 600h badges?

And what about the Toyota/Ford collaboration on a “new co-developed hybrid system ready for use later this decade on…rear-wheel-drive light trucks and SUVs”? Does that mean we’ll see hybrid Toyota Tundra and Toyota Sequoia models by the end of 2015? Hard to say, since the original Toyota Global and USA news releases from 22 August 2011 not only fail to mention any prospective production dates but promised to move from Memorandum of Understanding to formal production agreement “by next year” – meaning 2012 – yet, with less than 3 months to go before year’s end, nothing has happened. Might an announcement be forthcoming at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show press conferences on Wednesday 28 or Thursday 29 November?

Finally, Lord knows what obscure Japanese domestic market-only hybrids Toyota will come up with. For example, this author vaguely recalls reading something about possible hybrid versions of the oddball, asymmetrical door (single slider on the left, two regular doors on the right) Toyota Porte/Spade twins. Not much of a stretch, really, since they share their underpinnings (read NBC, or New Basic Car platform) with Yaris and Prius c/Aqua.

Thus ends Part 1 of our in-depth analysis and commentary on Toyota’s Environmental Technology Development update, which corresponds to the Initiatives for Energy Conservation section of the news release, focusing on improvements to conventional gasoline, diesel and hybrid powertrains. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will feature our thoughts on Initiatives for Fuel Diversification, as Toyota describes various degrees of electrification such as plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles and fuel cells. This will conclude with a Beyond the News Release section featuring additional background information, much of it from journalists that attended the actual press event in Japan.

As Toyota further extends its Japan shutdown, a picture emerges on which models will run out first

To hardly anyone’s surprise, Toyota has announced yet another extension of its vehicle-production halt at all plants in Japan (including subsidiary vehicle manufacturers) until at least Saturday 26 March (a previously-scheduled Saturday production day), as reported on Toyota’s USA and Global Newsrooms. This newly extended shutdown brings the estimated loss of production units to about 140,000 since the earthquakes and tsunami struck. About 60% of those vehicles, or 84,000, would have been export bound. This was followed by cautionary warnings of likely production interruptions in North America of indeterminate location or duration. A Reuters article, citing Toyota spokesman Craig Mullenbach, suggests that the company’s San Antonio, Texas plant that builds slow-selling Tacoma and Tundra pickup trucks is the likeliest North American production facility to be idled.

In better news, the previously-announced resumption of replacement parts production on Thursday 17 March and of parts for overseas production facilities on Monday 21 March was reaffirmed, along with word that all 13 North American vehicle and engine plants are, for now, running normally, although overtime has been curtailed to conserve parts that come from suppliers in Japan.

Meanwhile, a story from the British-based (and limited access) site brings us an update from Toyota Kirloskar Motor (TKM), Toyota’s importer, assembler and distributor in India. Sandeep Singh, TKM’s deputy managing director informs us that most parts are sourced from from Thailand and Indonesia and there would be no immediate threat to the Indian operations as stocks for the current month are sufficient and components ordered earlier are also on the way. Still, he cautiously adds that “We are still assessing the situation and would likely be in a better position to comment on that in the next few days”.

Also reporting updates is the Guangzhou Toyota operation in south China via a Reuters story. The company states that, given 90%-95% Chinese content of locally-built Toyota Camrys plus current stocks of Japanese-sourced parts, they should be fine until mid-April. The article also estimates that current inventory of Lexus vehicles in China is sufficient to sustain sales for two months.

A recent iteration of the Toyota USA Newsroom’s earthquake and tsunami statement ends by saying that “Regarding dealerships in the U.S., inventories remain generally good”. While that may certainly be the case at present, most pundits think that by the time April ends, the situation may be very different, especially insofar as Toyota and Lexus models sourced from Japan. The uncertainty and pessimism hinges around two basic facts. For one, while the majority of Toyota factories and their larger (Tier 1) suppliers are based around the Tokyo and Toyota City areas that are hundreds of miles from the major earthquake and tsunami epicenter, that is not necessarily the case with smaller, almost mom-and-pop Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers and machine shops. Depending on the vehicle and who you listen to, a modern car has somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 individual parts, and if even one of them is missing, you certainly can’t produce the vehicle. Honda and Nissan have reported difficulties or an outright inability to contact over 40 of these small suppliers, and it’s most likely that Toyota is in this same situation. The second issue, as Michael Smitka, professor of economics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia said in a Bloomberg article, “You can’t get trucks in and out of the area affected by the disaster. In some cases, a road or bridge may be open, but with only one lane available. Are you going to try to put through a shipment of machinery at the expense of getting through a shipment of food?” Oh, and don’t forget to add the disruption added by rolling power blackouts due to the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant drama.

Although predicting the future supply situation of any given vehicle is an imprecise guessing game, two articles provide valuable data that sheds a faint light on the subject, not just for Toyota but for Japan’s major automakers. The first of these was written by Bill Visnic of Edmunds AutoObserver, and was already cited as a source for our recent Subaru update. The second is a study by Hans Greimel of Automotive News of the 20 top-selling Japan-built models sold in the United States and their recent sales numbers. Combining data from these two sources, plus a sprinkling of information from other articles allows us to compile this cautious and admittedly hazy snapshot of what to expect supply-and-demand-wise from a number of imported-from-Japan Toyota and Lexus models in the coming months:

Toyota Prius
With 140,928 units sold in 2010, plus a further 24,174 units in January and February 2011, the Prius is currently Toyota’s best-selling Japanese import vehicle in the United States. Given its rise in popularity concurrent with the rise in gasoline prices, it is often cited alongside the Nissan Leaf and Honda Fit as one of the three vehicles most threatened by low supply and high demand, a situation further exacerbated by one of three Toyota/Panasonic Primearth EV battery-making facilities being among the most affected by the Japanese natural disasters.

A report from Edmunds AutoObserver from Monday 21 March affirms that consideration of the Prius among online shoppers is up more than 30% since the beginning of the year, triple the 11% increase in consideration of all hybrids and of all small cars in general, with one Pennsylvania dealer reporting a quadrupling of interest. Yet, at this point, supply still seems reasonable (with California’s Longo Toyota reporting about a 30-day supply) and there are few if any reports of over-MSRP selling. Some dealers are selling Prii at MSRP, while Tony Gmitrovic of Elmhurst Toyota in the suburban Chicago, Illinois area reports that “while Prius hybrids are still going out the door at below MSRP, instead of at $700 to $800 below we’re seeing them go at $400 to $500 under.” Two days later, the Detroit Free Press quoted‘s Jesse Toprak as stating that, “American consumers are paying at least $2,000 more for a Toyota Prius than they would have paid before the crisis began… Prius went from selling about $300 under invoice three weeks ago to selling right at the MSRP since the earthquake.”

This may be a short-lived situation, however, as the Toyota USA Newsroom has just announced that on Monday 28 March Toyota will restart production of the Prius at the Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City.

The Prius’ larger Prius v/Prius+ sibling’s launch in Japan, originally slated for late April, has become the first new model debut postponement as a result of the Japanese earthquakes, a fact announced via a Toyota USA Newsroom press release. Seemingly unaffected, at this point, are the late summer 2011 U.S. release of Prius v and the “first half of 2012″ on-sale date for Prius+ in Europe.

Toyota RAV4
Given that the RAV4 has been made in Canada since 4 November 2008, it may seem odd to see it listed here. A glance at Toyota’s February 2011 sales chart, however, reveals that just over 23% of RAV4s sold in the U.S. thus far in 2011 are imported from Japan. It remains to be seen if the Canadian plant has the capacity to take up the slack from Japan, or if, to the contrary, a lack of parts will also bring Canada to a halt. We should also note that the current RAV4 is due for a next-generation makeover no later than the 2013 model year.

Lexus ES
Perennially Lexus’ best-selling car (as opposed to crossover SUV), the ES is cited by Edmunds AutoObserver as being among the company’s models most at risk of low supplies by the industry’s Days to Turn metric. Defined as the average number of days vehicles were in dealer inventory before being sold during the month(s) indicated, the ES’s 26-day supply for February 2011 and a probably lower-than-average additional supply for March may translate into serious shortages as soon as mid-April.

The fact that the current Lexus ES isn’t even offered in either the Japanese Domestic Market nor in Europe, with the bulk of its production destined for North America, as well as its strong under-the-skin kinship with the made-in-America Toyota Camry, and it is little surprise that every time a fiscal or political U.S./Japan crisis flares up, rumors start to run amok regarding North American Lexus ES production. The great Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 may well be the tipping point that finally makes this happen.

Toyota 4Runner
With all the talk of the traditional body-on-frame, truck-based SUV such as the 4Runner being an endangered species, it comes as something of a surprise to see it appear so prominently on these lists. Yet, with a notable sales upturn for the 5th-generation model that debuted for the 2010 model year, the 4Runner is #10 among the top 20 best-selling Japanese-built vehicles in the U.S., and its 35-day supply on February 2011 implies that getting one after late April could be a dicey proposition.

Toyota Yaris
Predictions surrounding the Toyota Yaris are probably the most complex and convoluted you’ll find in this article. Edmunds AutoObserver informs us that the current Yaris Days To Turn figure in the U.S. is well over 100 days, thus hinting that current inventory won’t sell out until as late as July. Things are not that simple, however, as another spike in gasoline prices as a side-effect of the current war in Libya (or further spread of Middle East unrest) coupled with dwindling Prius stocks could well drive renewed demand for one of the U.S. market’s most fuel-economical non-hybrid vehicles.

Also, the current, 2nd-generation Yaris is winding down its last model year, and its 3rd-generation successor went on sale in Japan in late December 2010, as well as appearing as a Yaris HSD Hybrid concept for Europe at this month’s Geneva Auto Show. With the Prius v/Prius+ Japanese launch already delayed, the same fate may well behold the 3rd-generation Yaris launch outside Japan. Even worse for the U.S. market, the bulk of current Yaris sedan production (also sold as Toyota Belta or Vios in other markets), as well as 3rd-generation Yaris for North America and the Middle East is or would be served from the Central Motor Company facility in Miyagi prefecture, near Sendai, ground zero for the tsunami of Wednesday 9 March. While the plant is located back near the mountains, away from the shoreline where the tsunami made landfall, and reported damage to its wall and some pipes but no major structural or equipment problems, the state of its nearby infrastructure imply that this may well be Toyota’s last Japanese plant to reach any semblance of normal production. Toyota is surely brainstorming alternatives, and radical possibilities include sourcing Yaris production for North America from Europe’s Valenciennes, France plant or even this author’s suggestion that Yaris be built in Mexico.

Toyota Corolla
Another unexpected entry in the list is the Toyota Corolla. Its situation is much like that of the RAV4 mentioned earlier, with Canadian output supplemented by Japan-built vehicles that comprised just over 24% of U.S. Corolla sales. Again, it remains to be seen to what extent the Canadian plant has the capacity to take up the slack from Japan, or if a lack of parts will eventually bring Canada to a halt. Probably mitigating the Corolla situation, however, is on-again construction of Toyota’s Blue Springs, Mississippi factory, tentatively slated to begin production of the Corolla this coming fall.

Lexus IS
The overall 15th best-selling Japanese-built vehicle in the U.S. for 2010, Lexus’ smallest rear-wheel-drive sports sedan line currently has a 31-day Days To Turn figure in the U.S. for the IS 250, a bit over the ES’s 26-day figure. Thus, Lexus ISs could start becoming scarce by the end of April.

Lexus RX
You may be forgiven for wondering why Hans Griemel’s Automotive News article ranks the Lexus RX below its ES and IS stablemates as the 19th-best-selling Japanese vehicle imported into the United States for 2010 (and outside the top 20 for 2011) when it is, in fact, the marque’s best-selling vehicle here. The answer, again, is the same as for the Toyota RAV4 and Corolla: a mix of Canadian and Japanese sourcing. The latter comprises 30% of all Lexus RXs sold in the U.S., including all hybrid RX 450h models.

Does Lexus have the capability of sourcing RX Hybrids from North America as well? Tentatively, yes, but the logistics may not be all that easy, given that only the Cambridge, Ontario plant is geared to Lexus levels of fit-and-finish and quality, while only Kentucky has hybrid powertrain assembly expertise with the Camry.

Lexus LX
Although a niche, low-volume model, Lexus’ top-of-the-line SUV currently has but a 26-day supply on hand at dealers as of February 2011, just like its ES sibling. This implies that stocks could begin running seriously low as soon as mid-April. It would be interesting to see how that figure compares to the very similar Toyota Land Cruiser.

Lexus LS
The luxury carmaker’s flagship sedan, the Lexus LS, though far from being the marque’s volume leader, currently reports a 34 Days to Turn inventory, which probably means meager selection at U.S. Lexus dealers by the time the end of April rolls around.

Lexus CT
The Japanese natural disasters couldn’t have come at a worse time vis-à-vis the launch of Lexus’ newest volume model line, the premium compact hybrid CT. With the bulk of Lexus’ advertising and marketing initiatives for 2011 (some of them quite unorthodox and youth-oriented) directed towards the CT 200h, many feared that it would all become a monumentally wasted effort. Indeed, anecdotal evidence coming out of California already conveys tight CT supplies for the demand that’s out there. Fortunately, The Lexus CT is one of a trio of vehicles (along with the Toyota Prius and another Lexus that we’ll discuss shortly) that will see a resumption of production in Japan on Monday 28 March. Thus, Lexus’ Kyushu plant joins the Toyota Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City as the only two of the automaker’s facilities producing vehicles in the motherland.

Frankly, it makes all the sense in the world for Lexus to put its current diminished resources behind CT. After all, this is the vehicle that is expected to exponentially increase the marque’s sales in Europe, and interest in North America has also been heightened by the recent runup in gasoline prices.

Lexus HS
Toyota’s decision to prioritize Japanese production of Prius and Lexus CT, as noted earlier, is a sound one that may well be described as a no-brainer. Much more puzzling, however, is awarding this vaunted status to Lexus’ HS 250h. After all, this is a model that isn’t offered in Europe, was ultimately turned down by Australia and has sold well below expectations in North America. Granted, it’s Lexus’ best-selling model in the Japanese Domestic Market, but who in Japan would currently have their mind on car-shopping? Yet, the fact that it is built alongside the Lexus CT in Kyushu, its degree of platform and component commonality with Prius and CT, plus a possible decent supply of parts probably made a case for its inclusion in the upcoming reopening of Japanese production. Hopefully, parts inventories and logistics permitting, the Kyushu plant is flexible enough to adjust CT vs HS production. Or, perhaps, HS will finally begin to gain some sales traction in the U.S. It may already be doing so in California, at any rate.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1:
Bertel Schmitt – The Truth About Cars
Other Photos: Toyota USA Newsroom

IS F Review: Tokico HTS Dampers

IMG_9555.JPGAlthough I promised myself that I would keep my IS F as stock as possible, it was only a matter of time before I would do some mods that would be more practical rather than for just plain old looks. It is well-known that the IS F doesn’t have the plush ride everyone is accustomed to, but at the same time the IS F is not your ordinary Lexus. One could only take so much of the harsh IS F stock suspension, especially on poor and uneven California roads. The factory IS F shock setup is great to take on the track, but lacks the adjustability and comfort required for daily driving. For model year 2011, Lexus addresses the harshness with slight revisions made to the IS F suspension as it is reportedly sharper with a direct feel while improving ride quality. The factory shock absorber supplier for the IS F (and other Lexus/Toyota models) is Tokico, a division of Hitachi, Ltd. They are a respected Japanese suspension manufacturer who supplies OE shocks to many car makers around the world. Tokico also offers an array of aftermarket gas shock applications for both the street and track. Tokico is no stranger to the Lexus enthusiast community as they have offered the reliable HP (blue) series and the five way adjustable dampening Illumina (white) shocks for the first-generation IS 300 (JCE10). There are also applications for older model LS, SC and ES models. I’ve had experience with HP Tokico struts on my previous ’99 Toyota Solara and with the OE Tokico shocks on my previous ’04 Lexus IS 300.

Due to my involvement in the Lexus owners and enthusiast community, I was contacted by David Chou of Tokico USA by way of VIP Auto Salon to test fit a set of their latest line of shocks for the IS F, the Tokico HTS Damper (red) series. They wanted to confirm the cross-compatibility of their exisiting second generation Lexus IS shock application with the IS F. Sharing my existing knowledge of the 2nd gen IS platform with David, we both compared our data and decided that the existing 2nd Gen IS shocks should be similar if not the same in mounting and shape. We scheduled a time to do a test fit a set of HTS Dampers on my F. Since they were going to take out my suspension, David suggested that I could either use the existing stock spring setup with the HTS or use a set of aftermarket springs of my choice. Since the suspension has to be removed and reinstalled, I decided to do the latter since I had plans to do this anyway. Since I’ve had great experience with the Eibach Pro Kit springs on my previous Solara and IS 300, I decided to put them (Part# 8289.140) on my IS F. I am still riding on the factory 19″ BBS forged alloy wheels and did not want an extreme drop. The Pro Kit mildly lowers the front at 0.7″ and the rears at 0.3″. The HTS Dampers do not alter ride height in any way.  I wanted to retain as much of the factory look as possible without sacrificing wheel clearance.

IMG_5201.JPGI drove out to Tokico USA’s headquarters in Torrance, California where I met up with David. Their in-house installer did the install and took photos of the work. We compare both stock Lexus/Tokico made shocks and HTS Dampers. To our surprise, the stock shock casing and mount points of the HTS were exact. The only physical difference is that the factory IS F shocks have a flat black exterior with a monotube design. In contrast, the HTS has a bright red gloss exterior with twin tube, low pressure gas design. The HTS also features an infinitely adjustable dampening force setup where you can custom tailor your setup for a day at the track, or ultra cruising comfort. The beauty of the HTS Dampers for the IS F is that you can easily adjust the shocks to be a lot stiffer than stock, or a lot softer than stock. It would have been nice to have this as a standard feature on the IS F, but then Tokico would lose out on aftermarket offerings for the F! The HTS’ unique piston and valve design allows for the best flexibility of shock dampening just like a more expensive coilover setup. But unlike an expensive coilover setup which usually says “for off-road use only” on the box, the Tokico HTS Damper offers a Limited Lifetime Warranty as long as they are used for street duties. In the event of a warranty claim, you can send the faulty shock into Tokico where they can repair or replace the part at no charge (along with proof of purchase from an authorized Tokico retailer) to you. The HTS Damper is exclusively designed and manufactured at Tokico’s facilities in Japan.


I’ve had a chance to drive my IS F with the HTS Dampers under a variety of road conditions and passenger configurations. Let me say that the HTS has made a huge difference in the comfort of my IS F. There are no clicks or detents when you turn the adjustment dampening knob, it is infinitely variable. The shocks come full stiff or full clockwise out of the box from the factory. Adjustments can be dialed in to your specifications. The softest setting can be comparable to the comfort of a regular IS 250, whereas the stiffest setting can be as stiff as drift car status. The setting just below center is what I like to call medium soft. This setup is great for daily driving around the city or long highway cruising. The midway setting is as close as you can get to the factory shock setting. If you want teeth-chattering stiff, you can do so, but I wouldn’t recommend it for long periods of time, especially if you suffer from back problems. The overall ride with these shocks are very compliant even with a full load of luggage and passengers. I was able to try out the HTS Dampers on a recent road trip to SEMA in LasIMG_5202.JPG Vegas last month. For those who have experienced driving Interstate 15 (from Los Angeles to Las Vegas), you travel on a variety of road surfaces ranging from super-smooth concrete to jagged, eroding pavement from the extreme climate of the Mojave Desert. Because the IS F is front heavy, I tend to set my front shocks stiffer than the rears. You can turn the dampening adjustment knob a total of 7.5 turns from end to end.

If you are interested in getting the HTS Dampers (Red) for your IS F, the part can be cross referenced with the existing HTS Damper (Part# HTS117) setup for the ’06-current IS 250/350. This applies to the existing Tokico HP (Blue) application as well. If you’re looking to upgrade your factory IS F suspension, but don’t want the hassle of coilovers (that would need rebuilding after a period of time), this is the best bang for the buck.  If you want the flexibility of shock dampening adjustments and cannot stand the harsh shock setup of your IS F, these Tokico HTS Dampers are for you.


Toyota and Lexus heritage. Photo below was taken at the Tokico display during Toyotafest 2010. Photo from left to rightD1GP driver, Taka Ueno’s personal Toyota Corolla GTS and my IS F both featuring Tokico HTS Dampers.


What is included in the HTS117 Package:

Special Thanks goes out to Clark of VIP Auto Salon and David of Tokico USA.

Discussion: Club Lexus IS F Forum – Product Review: Tokico HTS Damper – IS F