FT 4X: Analysis beyond the hype.

(images courtesy of Toyota USA’s press site)

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When Toyota published the initial press release for the FT 4X concept, the automotive press and Toyota truck enthusiasts (myself included) practically lost their minds over the prospect of the Japanese automaker relaunching  a successor to the much loved and discontinued (after MY ‘14) FJ Cruiser. All  this fanfare and more, even after the fact Toyota included a teaser image that showed the front wheel and tire of the concept car, which indicated a rather tame tread rating for a supposed hardcore 4×4 like the FJ. Nonetheless, the majority of the press and enthusiast crowd remained undeterred in their thoughts that this was going to be another body-on-frame, off-road and overland ready rig. Boy, were we all wrong. No, instead Toyota introduced to the world a (euhm, another) unibody crossover with all the tough looks of its rock crawling and rutted trail slaying brethren, but with none of the hardware to tackle the rough stuff. The overall concept -once released- was met with what seemed to be an overwhelming amount of scorn from the automotive enthusiast community.

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The designers from Toyota’s Orange County, California based, CALTY Design Research, took the lead in introducing the concept to the world at this year’s New York International Auto Show, where they dished out terms only car designers would like, “casualcore”– a term for -according to Toyota- millennials not interested in hardcore off-roading, but causal trips to a campsite rather than an off-road vehicle park where one could do both.

Millennials –or generation Y- were the target focus group for the FT 4X concept, which in this specific instance were located in the Bay Area in Northern California. A group of people located in a prominent city, but by no means your traditional Toyota truck enthusiasts. Why Toyota or their designers went to such great lengths to incorporate this group of people as a core part of their research, is a bit of a mystery considering the fact they still wanted to make this concept “rugged” and something that would embody the lineage of Toyota trucks like the original 4runner and FJ. If that was really the case, I suspect we would have seen an actual FJ successor. They left their loyal Toyota truck customers out of the research, completely. FJ successor talk aside, the focus group Toyota conducted on millennials produced both an exterior and interior design full of gimmicks and very little authenticity.

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The exterior design is awkward in a variety of ways, from the Kia Soul-like side-profile, to the untold number of movable parts of the interior that also act as camping –or more likely “glamping”- accessories such as; a water bottle one could easily misconstrue for a door handle and flash lights that act as interior dome lights that can be easily removed –and more than likely misplaced and/or lost- as a few examples. I can appreciate that Toyota designers wanted to offer a more tactile experience in the interior when so many of today’s cars are “swipe” this and “touch” that, but does everything need to be so contrived? Good design typically follows an established set of principles set forth by designers, not focus groups.  Usually, when the latter becomes involved, those principles either become seriously diluted or completely lost, which the latter is what we see with the FT 4X. More successful aspects of the FT 4X’s design, though few, would include: The reinterpretation of the FJ heritage grill and the trick tailgate is something that looks just as cool as it is functional, if not more than a little impractical for real-world use being constructed of what looks to be plastic. However, this is just a concept, so of course a lot can change between the show stand and showroom floor.

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One of the bigger problems with car designers using focus groups, is you’re asking a small segment of the population to dictate the end product the rest of us get. And while case studies may show that one segment tends to buy some cars more than others –with an untold number of variables involved- that should be for the market –read consumers at large- to determine. In whittling down a segment of the marketplace, you’re also doing the same to the product’s chances for success in it (look at the Honda Element and Crosstour as prime examples). Establish a concept based on where the demand is in the marketplace, not segmentation of it, and incorporate what makes your brand unique in the product’s design and packaging. The packaging aspect (at least conceptually) is where Toyota might be onto something.

As is yesterday’s news, the compact crossover/ SUV segment is what’s selling, and with more than a few offerings promising consumers true all-weather capability, even fewer offer a true mechanical four-wheel-drive system. Most are electronically aided all-wheel-drive that can become overwhelmed by the elements a lot more quickly and easily, thus nullifying that aforementioned promise of being able to overcome the worst of the elements. The FT 4X is said to have a mechanical four-wheel-drive system (again, at least conceptually) complete with a selectable low-range, which is very useful when treading off the beaten path and would guarantee better traction in foul weather than most of what’s on offer in the current compact crossover/ SUV segment.

So, while just a concept at this point, there has been much talk from Toyota about this potentially becoming a future product in the offering, should there be enough positive feedback (more likely constructive, which means this thing is going to get built) and there certainly seems to be a place for it in the market with vehicles like the Jeep Renegade and Subaru XV Crosstrek, both of which have found embrace with the outdoorsy set. However, Toyota will have to re-work the execution of the design and some of the functionality of the concept for it to have a fighting chance. My advice; ditch the focus group talk and dig deep into that rich Toyota truck heritage. It doesn’t need to have a body-on-frame design to be useful to everyone, because a lot of people own Wranglers –the most off road capable vehicle on the market south of a Land Cruiser- that never venture far from the mall and school parking lots of America. Give it the best off-road prowess a unibody crossover can have (because we still like to explore and get to magical places our Camry’s can’t), plenty of interior space along with that legendary Toyota “QDR” –Toyota speak for quality, dependability, reliability- and it will be a winner in more than a few automotive publication’s comparison tests and on the lists of a slew of consumers. Do it right Toyota, do it right. And please, ditch the focus groups.

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