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Face of Toyota design

From the drool-worthy FT-1 Concept to the funky C-HR compact crossover, and even the new “sexy” Camry sedan, the brand is looking much less ho-hum and way more oh-yum.

Part of that new vibe is coming from a star American designer who is pushing the brand’s styling to new limits under Akio Toyoda’s decree for “no more boring cars.”Ian Cartabiano enjoys a good bowl of ramen and cruising backstreet boutiques in Tokyo. But it’s clearly his California flair that’s giving his U.S. studio outsized influence at Japan’s No. 1 carmaker at the moment.

He and his colleagues at the Calty design center in Newport Beach, Calif., are shaking things up.

The in-your-face C-HR and the curvaceous new Camry are two recent hits. So is the FT-4X Concept, a Tonka-truck trail hawk shown in New York last April. Watch for more handiwork soon when Toyota unveils, as early as this fall, an all-new Supra sports car as previewed by the sublime FT-1.

Cartabiano, 43, a laid-back, blue-eyed, bearded stylist who joined Toyota in 1997, had a hefty hand in all of them — as well as in the super svelte Lexus LC sports coupe. But the veteran designer credits the surge in emotional design to two factors: CEO Toyoda and new modularized platforms.

Car-crazy Toyoda unchained designers to break boundaries by demanding hotter-looking rides. And thanks to the Toyota New Global Architecture, a series of revamped vehicle underpinnings that allows Toyota’s cars to be lower, wider, leaner and ​ meaner, designers are free to deliver.

“The era of boring cars, of bland cars and anonymous design is over,” Cartabiano said at the Japanese carmaker’s global headquarters here. “It’s what Akio expects. When the president says something like that, it really allows designers to feel creative freedom.”

Impossible to miss

The clearest sign of changing times: Toyota’s sizzling show cars aren’t getting watered down. The production versions of the Toyota C-HR and Lexus LC are spitting images of their edgy concept cars.

The metamorphosis is getting noticed.

“It’s almost impossible to miss or ignore Toyota’s products anymore,” said John Manoogian, a professor of transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a former General Motors designer. “It’s so difficult to get a large corporation to understand the importance of design as a strategic tool and a product differentiator. Apple understands this. Mr. Toyoda understands it as well and has unleashed Toyota’s designers to be as creative as possible.”

Toyota is also spending more time and money to make it happen.

Switching to the modularized architecture allows engineers to drive down costs by using a common parts bin for a wider array of nameplates. Executives had promised the savings would be channeled back into better vehicles with sexier designs and more cutting-edge technology. And corporate cost-control managers are making good on that pledge.

For the C-HR alone, the design budget was increased 25 percent, Cartabiano said.

“It’s brought down cost in some areas, which allows more cost to be spent on more expressive design,” he said of the modular architecture. “It’s something that wouldn’t happen in the old way of doing things.”

‘Crazy-ass shape’

Cartabiano glides his hand along the undulating curves of the C-HR’s rear quarter-panel, which boasts some of the deepest, most intricate stamping in the Toyota lineup. The wild fender flares slither from around the tailgate and under the taillamp before blending into a heavy door crease.

The deep draw of the stamping required delicate tooling and flawless production processes to make sure the sheen of reflected light seamlessly follows the creases from one panel to the next.

Cartabiano on the C-HR: More money for “more expressive design.”

On the Camry, a key sticking point was the aerodynamics of the C-pillar. The pillar gets a twist in the middle to allow the rear window to curl around the sides of the car. That kink also is a demarcation for a color option with a blacked-out roof that gives the Camry sportier proportions akin to a rear-wheel-drive sedan. Designers at first assumed the flourish was a pipe dream.

“In the beginning, it was like, ‘Oh that would be cool, but they’ll never make anything like this,’ ” Cartabiano recalls. “But then, engineering’s getting excited and we’re figuring out ways to do it.”

Toyota splurged on design extras for the Camry. Aside from the blacked-out roof option, the XLE and XSE grades get different front bumpers, rear bumpers and rocker panels, as well as four wheel choices.

“We can make this kind of sculpture, but still make lots of product and keep our costs down,” Cartabiano said.

“The design budget was increased, and a lot of that was because of TNGA.”

Toyota boosted design spending on everything from the Camry’s boomerang taillamps to the door handles. The door handle took four months to design, said Cartabiano, who penned the initial 2-inch sketch of the new Camry in the margins of his calendar journal.