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Toyota not credited as innovator

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Respect is a hard commodity to come by these days. A lack of respect seems more common than admiration for a job well done. Consider Toyota.

In recent years, the company displaced General Motors from the perch it had occupied for decades as the world's largest automaker. But while Toyota's business acumen is held in high regard, its ability to build vehicles is derisively likened to that of an appliance manufacturer. The company rarely gets the credit it deserves for innovation and influence.

The thought occurred to me at the media introduction for the 2013 Toyota RAV4 crossover SUV. When Toyota officials mentioned that the RAV4 is now in its fourth generation, I was stunned. Have there really been four versions? Well, yes.

The RAV4 debuted in 1995 with an SUV body plopped atop the Celica All-Trac platform.

At the time, American automakers were making a mint building SUVs using full-size pickup truck platforms. Given that GM and Ford each typically sold about 1 million pickups annually, using those platforms to create SUVs reduced costs. Considering that pickups and SUVs command higher prices than cars, the profits were, and are, enormous.

Toyota had a vehicle in this space: the 4Runner, a rugged truck, built atop the company's compact pickup platform. It was a serious off-road warrior, with a high ride height and rough ride. While popular, neither the 4Runner, nor the pickup truck platform it used, sold in the numbers seen by Detroit automakers.

Toyota wanted to tap into the trend, and the profits that came with it. But the company's high-volume models employed car platforms, not truck platforms. Toyota was able to turn this perceived disadvantage into an advantage.

Like all auto manufacturers, Toyota understood that while the increasing popularity of SUVs came from their rough, go-anywhere-lifestyle image, fewer than 5 percent of buyers ever took their SUVs off-road. Buyers increasingly used them as a replacement for mini-vans and station wagons. Off-road prowess wasn't needed; nor was the lack of refinement such ability brought with it.

By using a car platform, Toyota could still deliver all-wheel-drive capability along with a more refined driving experience.

The RAV4 was met with incredulous reviews when it debuted. But since then, Toyota's competitors have followed with 45 different crossover models, according to the company. Today, truck-based SUVs are the exception, not the rule.

And it was Toyota that got us there.

It's a similar story with gas-electric hybrids, a long-abandoned engineering concept that automakers had unsuccessfully toyed with for a century. Toyota dusted it off and perfected it, changing the face of fuel-efficient cars.

And let's not forget that Toyota pioneered the production system that all automakers now use to manufacture vehicles.

Critics often deride Toyotas for their bland styling and/or unrewarding driving experience. The reality is this: Toyota has changed the nature of the automotive industry, just as GM once did.

And even though auto journalists chastise Toyota's products, the fact is that Americans love them. That's why they buy so many of them.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk; larry.printz@pilotonline.com.

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