• Chunichi Shimbun

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In late March, driver Morizo put on his helmet, got in the driver’s seat of Toyota’s GR Yaris and stepped on the gas.

With the engine roaring, the blue and yellow car sped around the track, sending Morizo, also known as Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda, into a world of his own during a five-hour endurance race at Twin Ring Motegi racetrack in Tochigi Prefecture.

While driving the car, Toyoda concentrates all his senses on the driving experience — the moment when he gears up, steps on the brakes and rounds corners.

“It’s like having a dialogue with the car,” Toyoda said, referring to the experience.

Toyoda, the “master driver” at Toyota who test drives a new car model as a final check before they hit showrooms, has been test driving the car from the start of its development alongside its engineers.

It’s the first car in which Toyota has used its technology developed for race cars.

“I’m the developer on the ground and Morizo is the chief engineer,” said Naohiko Saito, who is in charge of the GR Yaris development, adding that Toyoda sat down with the engineers to discuss the details of the car.

When the first test car was manufactured, Toyoda flew to Hokkaido in mid-winter for a test drive at a racetrack in the city of Abashiri.

But when he was testing out the car, he lost control and crashed into a mound of snow.

As people rushed to the rescue, Toyoda calmly got out of the car and said, “I don’t like the feel of it.”

“He’s staking his life on this,” Saito recalled.

Just before the car went on sale, Toyoda tested the car at a dirt course in Aichi Prefecture until the car broke down, checking the details from the test course with other race drivers he developed the car with. Quite a task for a president who has every second accounted for in their schedule.

For Toyoda, the noise that surrounds him disappears when he is behind the wheel — a time to be by himself and indulge his passion for cars.

“I’m always getting reports from someone, rarely having a quiet moment to myself. I’m on my own when I’m driving,” said Toyoda.

At the end of 2016, when Toyoda gave the green light to develop the GR Yaris, the only instructions he gave were to offer a great driving experience and avoid an overall loss.

Toyoda took the lead in making sure the GR Yaris offers a great driving experience. Profitability, meanwhile, is an issue every chief engineer at Toyota needs to face up to.

“I ditched the idea of making it cost-effective using mass production,” Saito said. His team looked over every auto part individually, asking parts makers to keep the production cost low using existing facilities.

In one case, they used a production facility from 50 years ago.

Staffers were all for the policy that to make a better car, they needed to make a production line especially for the GR Yaris, based on their knowledge of luxury car models produced only in small quantities.

Many top-notch engineers, dubbed the “artisans,” were gathered from factories nationwide to carry out certain assembly process by hand.

In the end, the GR Yaris, with an annual production volume of around 25,000 cars, has been supported by car enthusiasts, getting 10 out of 10 in some car magazines overseas that are known for their harsh reviews.

More than six months since the car went on sale, the development team is still working with Morizo, who drives the GR Yaris in races. In the pit, Saito is there to handle any malfunction on the spot, along with 20 other engineers on call at head office in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture.

Their journey continues.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 21.

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