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Toyota’s 50 years in NZ: A trip down memory lane

on December 20 2016 | in Industry news, Latest news | by | with Comments Off

Back in March, Toyota NZ planted a Puriri tree at its headquarters in Palmerston North to mark its 50th year in New Zealand. As 2016 comes to a close, and Toyota celebrates what it calls “50 amazing years”, Alastair Sloane looks back at some of the stuff he wrote about Toyota for the NZ Herald: 2000, the launch of the Echo/Yaris; 2001, the ninth-generation Corolla; 2006, how Toyota plays games with names.

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June 2000: For the sake of this story Toyota can be a mountain and the European car buyer the wise prophet Muhammad.

Toyota builds a mountain of good cars each year and offers them at a price to followers all around the world, just like the original Muhammad did with his beliefs.

But Toyota didn’t have enough believers in Europe, the home of the small car. So it hired a European designer, a Greek named Sotiris Kovos, who inherited wisdom from other gods, and asked him to come up with a smart little number that Europeans would buy.

It asked others in the know to find a handle based on European languages. This was vital. Japanese carmakers aren’t strong on names. Back in the late 1950s, Toyota called its first planned export car the Toyolet. Its American office warned sales would probably be slow.

The European wordsmiths compiled a list of hundreds of possible names and ran them past people in surveys in Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain. The names were whittled down to a shortlist of 12 and checked for copyright and meaning.

Toyota liked Yaris best, saying it appealed to younger people but suggested maturity and prestige. Then it built the car in Japan and launched it in Europe. Then it won the European Car of the Year, praised particularly for its innovation inside and out. Now Toyota is building a dedicated factory in France to produce it.

So, instead of expecting European buyers to continue to trek to its door in Japan, Toyota went to Europe, just like the mountain, in the form of devotees, went to Muhammad. Although the wisdom of Muhammad’s thinking was apparent 1400 years before that of Toyota’s.

Now the Yaris is selling like crazy – 10,000 cars in three months, faster in Europe than any Toyota product before it. Same in Japan, where it is called the Vitz – 100,000 cars in six months, an all-time Toyota record.

But will the Echo be as big a hit? That’s what the Yaris/Vitz is called in New Zealand and Australia. Nobody seems to know why it is called the Echo. There is no explanation in Toyota NZ’s press kit. We will assume the name Echo has something to do with repeat sales.

Toyota NZ is preparing for plenty of these when the hatchback and sedan go on sale on January 1, 2001. Indeed, the company’s product manager, Spencer Morris, reckons its success in Europe will rub off on New Zealanders. He expects to sell 110 Echos a month.

“As physically remote as we are from Europe, we still look to that market for our motoring inspiration. So the Echo, styled in Europe and engineered and made in Japan, has the potential to become a formidable force here.”

Designer Kovos agrees. “Too many small cars are purposely bland and featureless. We did not want to build a refrigerator – an appliance. Instead we set out to devise a style that would create emotion, a warm feeling. We wanted people to either love it or hate it. That is at least better than being indifferent.

“For the Echo we chose a strong Germanic influence. In Germany, form follows function. In Italy, for example, it is often the other way round. Because Echo had to offer such functionality, a Germanic design represented the best balance of practicality and strength.”

So, what it is this Japanese-European car and how much will it cost? It’s a big-small car with an excellent ride and a wonderful interior easy on the eye, roomy and functional. The instruments, delightfully uncluttered, are housed in the centre of what used to be called a dashboard. On each side of the fascia are storage bins. There are also bins in the doors. The driver sits up nice and straight.

Two four-cylinder engines are available, of 1.3 and 1.5-litre capacity. Both have been reworked to produce more usable pulling power and return improved economy.

The entry-level three-door, five-speed manual hatchback Echo comes with air-conditioning, a driver’s airbag, seatbelt pretensioner and costs $20,000. Passenger airbag and ABS anti-lock brakes will cost $1200 more. The five-door manual hatchback costs $22,500. The $1200 safety package and optional $1200 four-speed automatic transmission pushes up the price to $24,900.

The four-door sedan starts at $24,500, or $26,900, with the optional dual airbags, anti-lock brakes and automatic transmission.

Toyota says the Echo is the safest car in its class. European Car of the Year judges agreed.

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June 2001: Lots of things litter the desolate main road linking the Red Sea to the Dead Sea in Jordan – bits of vehicles, an old Toyota Corolla or two, strips of tyres, dead animals, scattered fruit, and perhaps a crate of something that has fallen off the back of a truck.

The animals wander on to the road during the night and mostly get hit by tired long-haul truck drivers, straddling and using the white line as a guide.

Bus drivers during the day use the white line as a compass. Almost everyone uses the white line for that purpose. That’s the way it is. Oncoming drivers unfamiliar with the order of things move over into the sand.

Dead donkeys and camels are towed off the road, mostly by four-wheel-drive Toyota Hiluxes. The shifting sands of the desert bury most of the other junk. The cycle goes on.

The sands have always buried things. The biblical spot – off the same main road – where Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt is now sand.

And the road leading to this signposted area in Jordan is mostly populated by Toyota Hiluxes, the camel-recovery vehicles.

The ubiquitous Hilux is found on roads leading to other historical sites, too. The Taleban used them when they went to blow up the statues of Buddha in central Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden tooled around in one before he switched to a Land Cruiser.

Bob Field, the chairman of Toyota New Zealand, made it clear the other day that while Toyota might sell vehicles in every corner of the Earth, it doesn’t specifically supply vehicles to the Taleban.

This response was prompted by a mass-circulation e-mail picture of a bearded Afghani standing by what’s left of a Toyota Hilux, crumpled and buried under rubble from a bombed building. The word bubble above him says, “Bugger”.

Field and his executives are preparing for the launch of another mass-circulation vehicle – the all-new, ninth-generation Corolla.

It “is the most significant advancement since the introduction of the first front-wheel-drive model in 1984,” Field says.

That’s confirmed by long-time Toyota consultant and former Formula One driver Chris Amon, who tuned the ride/handling mix of Toyotas for New Zealand conditions over the years.

“The new model is a great driver’s car. It drives and handles very well. Quite frankly, if we had tuned the new Corolla here nothing much would have changed.”

The 12-model 2002 Corolla comes in three body styles – hatch, sedan and wagon and is designated GL, GLX and TS – and was designed in France to compete with the best of the small/medium segment in Europe.

It has more interior space than the outgoing model, has a higher roofline and sits on a longer wheelbase. All models are powered by a 1.8-litre variable-valve engine producing 100kW at 6000 rpm and 171Nm of torque at 4200 rpm, and mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

The new Corolla is no longer just a competent, reliable, well-built but largely anonymous Japanese car. Its interior design, seats included, is vastly improved, echoing in shape, materials and substance the best of the luxury makers. The radio/CD player is where it should be in all cars – high on the centre console just below the dash.

The rack and pinion steering is sharp, handling is predictably accurate, ride is soft but settled. The sportier TS – Toyota Sport, a worldwide brand created to give the company a youthful, competitive image – is a lot of fun and can be coaxed into believing it is a genuine hot hatch.

The Corolla ranges in price from $29,990 for the base model hatch to $37,150 for the automatic TS hatch. The prices are higher than some observers expected.

But Toyota counters that the new Corolla is not just another in a long line – it’s a breakthrough model that is sophisticated, advanced and as important in a global sense as the first front-wheel-drive Corolla.

A spice dealer down the road from the resting place of Lot’s wife drove a 1984 Corolla. “It is good, yes? The best car in the world?”

Toyota thinks so. It has sold more than 29 million since 1966 – 170,000 of them in New Zealand. It expects the new Corolla to have even more influence.

Note: Toyota NZ at the end of November 2016 had sold 252,190 Corollas, or an average of 5000 a year over the 50 years sine 1966.

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December 2006: If there is something significant about the name Aurion, Toyota New Zealand isn’t saying. The company’s new large car gets its name from the Greek word meaning “tomorrow”.

Nothing unusual there, Toyota likes playing games with names. Take its small car Yaris. One theory has it that the name is a combination of the German word “ja,” for “yes”, with the Greek goddess “Charis”, who symbolised grace and elegance. The designer for the Yaris is Greek, too.

Another is that Yaris was a minor league Greek god, sort of an entry-level player. Whatever, Yaris is perhaps more suitable than Echo, the previous name for the car in New Zealand.

Echo was a Greek nymph whose unrequited love for Narcissus – the bloke who liked looking at himself – caused her to pine away until nothing but her voice remained.

Maybe that’s why Toyota dropped the Echo name. How about the names of other Toyota models? Avalon is a mythical place, Corolla is part of a flower, Camry comes from the Japanese word for “crown”. Prado is Spanish for “meadow” – where there is room for four-wheel-drives.

But Aurion? And “tomorrow?” The theory is that Toyota NZ timed the launch of the sedan to coincide with its 40th birthday – and its best sales year since 1991.

That way company executives can kick up their pre-Christmas heels and celebrate the past 11 or so months and two kinds of “tomorrow” – the car and the future.

The future is assured, at least from Toyota’s point of view. It will continue to grow and will surely within the next year or so take over from General Motors as the world’s largest carmaker.

The Aurion’s future isn’t nearly as defined. Steve Pragnell, Toyota NZ general manager of new vehicles, reckons it will reinvigorate the large-car market, down almost 20 per cent this year because of higher pump prices.

He says it’s more powerful but uses less fuel than its six-cylinder Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon rivals.

He expects it to attract both fleet and private buyers. “Its size and advanced technology, which includes six-speed automatic transmission and stability control on all models, will appeal to those wanting a sophisticated big car,” he said.

But Toyota’s last big car was a sales flop. There was nothing mythical about the Avalon. It was more of a mystery.

Can Aurion reverse the trend? It looks better and bolder than the Avalon. It is built at Toyota’s plant in Melbourne and has received much praise from Australian analysts.

Pragnell says Australian sales are strong. So are export orders, including the Middle East. “This could mean that Toyota New Zealand’s biggest challenge would be to be able to access sufficient stock to satisfy demand,” he says.”

Is an escape clause hidden in there somewhere, in case the car isn’t as successful as the company hopes?

The front-drive Aurion is available in four versions – AT-X, Sportivo SX6, Touring and the top-of-the-range Grande. Prices range from $41,990 to $55,850.

Each model is powered by a 3.5-litre V6 engine producing 204kW (275bhp) at 6200rpm and 346Nm of torque at 4700rpm. That’s using 95-octane petrol. Output drops off a bit with 91-octane petrol. Exhaust emissions meet Euro IV standards.

Toyota says official Australian tests show Aurion using 9.9 litres/100km, or 28.5mpg. The same test standard has the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon using around 11 litres/100km, give or take a drop or two.

The V6 is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with manual mode. The transmission uses artificial intelligence to adapt shift points to the driver’s style and road conditions, like most other big-engine automatics these days.

Safety equipment includes eight airbags and stability control. Standard equipment includes all sorts of goodies.

The top-range Grande also has rain-sensing windscreen wipers and headlights that “see” around corners. If only they could tell what was coming in terms of Aurion sales.

 

 

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