[CARS] Inside Toyota’s Secret Design Studios

The Father Life gets an inside look at Toyota’s secret design studio in So Cal

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Did you ever have an experience where you found yourself asking, “How the hell did I end up here?”

That’s how I felt last week when I was invited to tour Toyota’s secret North American design studio – a.k.a. Calty Design Research. Within this unassuming building in Newport Beach, Calif., Toyota designers have given birth to hundreds of vehicles including the FJ Cruiser, Avalon, and the new Sienna.

I was flown from Chicago to Los Angeles to check out the facility and test drive Toyota’s 2011 Sienna minivan. I imagine the Japanese automaker was hoping to build some post-recall goodwill by sending myself and several other parenting bloggers on this pricey trip.

About 30 mommy bloggers were invited on the tour. I was the only daddy. Being a stay-at-home dad, I’m used to finding myself surrounded by moms. Still, I sometimes felt like the token father.

Regardless, it was awesome to get a behind-the-scenes tour. The new Sienna is cool too. The same designers that dreamt up the minivan also design sports cars, beefy trucks, smooth luxury rides and cool SUVs.

For some reason, I thought the minivan design team would be made up of middle-aged moms and dads with milk stains on their shirts and old shoes. I was relieved to learn that the Sienna is actually designed by the same team that brings to life Toyota’s “cool” cars.

Ian Cartabiano, design studio manager at Calty, was among those asked to make the 2011 Sienna cool. He pointed to several of the design aspects while also putting the exclusivity of the tour into perspective.

“Even my family isn’t allowed to just walk around Calty,” Cartabiano said.

He and fellow Toyota designers start their designs with theme and a sketch. The initial drawings are tweaked using computer-imaging software. From there, new models are sent to Calty’s clay modeling department. Full-size models of every vehicle are sculpted from clay and critiqued.

Howard creates the next Sienna?

The visiting bloggers were given an opportunity to design their own minivans from a clay cast. I tried to make a hot rod minivan with a hood scoop sitting in a crown of thorns and roaring flames pouring off the fenders. In the end, it looked more like a mangled block of dirt than a viable concept car.

Concept cars that make it past the clay-modeling phase go on to be manufactured at a cost of about $1.3 million each. The concepts debut at auto shows. Depending on the public’s reaction, the vehicles are either put into production or put on a shelf, said Kevin Hunter, president of Calty.

As for the 2011 Sienna, it looks pretty good. It’s still a minivan. And, no minivan is ever going to have the style of a Ferrari. I don’t think minivan drivers (myself included) expect that sort of flair from a vehicle primarily designed to transport children to and from school, practice and play dates.

After the tour, the bloggers were divided into groups of four. We were given a shopping list, a $1,000 American Express gift card and keys to a new Sienna. The shopping list included items that we’d later donate to a local charity. Our group was asked to buy art supplies for a charity that provides art therapy to children.

We took turns driving the Sienna. It certainly drives nicer than my 2000 Chrysler Grand Voyager. It had more bells and whistles too. Sliding side doors that open with a push of a button, a full navigation system and a dual-screen rear DVD player were just a few of the options that made me salivate.

When it was my turn to drive, I found myself first in line at a red light. I told the ladies in back to hold on. Not everyone listened. I punched it anyway. The pickup was good. Seeing some of the moms flung back into their chairs was also funny.

The scavenger hunt complete, we cruised back to the hotel along the West Coast Highway. In Chicago, it was cold and raining. Here, the sun shined on my face and the sound of ocean waves filled the background.

Again, all I could ask was, “How the hell did I end up here?”

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