When Toyota’s Mirai was first presented in production form, the auto world was immediately split into two camps. Some — many, really — looked at it with disgust, and though they may appreciate the magnitude of the mission that the Mirai was trying to accomplish, they felt that the means to get there wasn’t the right way to go about it.
For others, the Mirai is an ambitious, optimistic shot at the future of transportation, and one that must be as cutting-edge visually as it is under the hood. The Mirai is meant to bring hydrogen propulsion to the masses in the same way that the Prius brought hybrids. Only, the Mirai is far more statement-making from a styling point than the Prius was upon its initial release.
The Mirai is an extreme indicator of a larger trend that’s sweeping across the board at Toyota. The Japanese company — previously the largest in the world by sales volume until VW overtook it for the first six months of this year — could always be relied on to take the safe styling route. Its cars weren’t particularly exciting, but they weren’t offensive or statement-making either. They were figuratively beige (though some literally too), and in America, beige sells. Hence the Camry’s perennial position as the best-selling car in America for nearly two decades.
But Toyota now appears to be taking a stand, and boldly going where it’s never gone before. As more millennials seep into the market for automobiles, Toyota is finding that it must adapt its form to cater to a much younger audience. Beige sold with the Boomers and Gen-Xers, but the younger members of society are now moving into the market with their own set of demands. In efforts to respond, Toyota is giving its entire portfolio a significant makeover.
The Camry, though bolder than before, still retains a degree of styling conservatism that the midsize sedan market demands. But more extreme examples include the afore-pictured 4Runner, which now sports an aggressively masculine and in-your-face from fascia. compared to its predecessors, the 4Runner is drastically more dramatic. But buyers seem to be enjoying the new look, as they are for the revitalized Highlander, RAV4, and Avalon.
The radicalization of Toyota’s styling began when Lexus’ spindle grille strategy was reinterpreted as the gaping, blacked-out maw that adorned the front of many Toyotas. Recent spy shots of Toyota’s Prius indicate that even the most mundane model in Toyota’s stable is getting a similar treatment, taking styling cues from the controversial Mirai.
When the Prius was released, it was arguably the safest-styled car on the road. It shared a similar profile and appearance to the ever-so-dull Toyota Echo. But Toyota was smart to let the tech speak for itself, and it quickly overtook the Honda Insight and nestled itself into the hearts of environmentalists worldwide.
With the Mirai, expect no such restraint.
The Corolla, too, was once appreciated for its utter lack of excitement. Historically, selling in volume meant creating a car that was all things to many people — and many people aren’t looking to make a statement with their vehicles. It’s this reason that the Corolla has long duked it out with Ford’s Focus to be the number 1 best-selling nameplate on the planet.
The Corolla is now one of the boldest cars in its segment, thanks to its angular lines and its attitude’s turn for the worse. After years as perhaps the blandest compact on the American market, the Corolla leap-frogged to the near-front, and consumers have responded accordingly. Is it loaded with fun levels of trim like the Focus ST? No. Is it as gorgeous as the Mazda3? Nope. But if you were to show the current Corolla to a buyer in the early 2000s, it would be entirely unrecognizable.
Lexus, too, is getting a similar treatment in a bid to make the luxury brand more appealing to younger buyers. Once the sensible luxury choice next to more polarizing German vehicles, Lexus’ land barges and SUVs were always reserved, restrained, and just about as safely styled as could be. Now, they’re among the most polarizing cars in the segment, with big, loud grilles and swooping character lines that spell more race car and less luxury land yacht.
This sort of evolution will continue to play out as millennials exercise their buying power, and Toyota won’t be the only one. Honda is taking more risks too, with a potent new family of Civics on the way. Volkswagen, ever the sensible German choice, is experimenting with uncharacteristically loud design as well to shore up its North American sales. This is a good thing — automakers who take risks are the ones who push the industry forward. After all, BMW wouldn’t be where it is now without the Bangle Butt.