Executive Insider: Kevin Hunter, Calty President

Avalon’s bold, polarizing design was just what Kevin Hunter and his Calty team envisioned to entice a different generation

May 08, 2018

The all-new Avalon’s design overhaul may be a shock to the system for some. But that’s kind of the idea.

With its longer stance and aggressive lines, Toyota’s flagship strikes a marked change from previous generations.
That’s nothing new for Toyota’s latest generation of products. In recent years, both Prius and Camry wowed – and polarized – customers with more daring designs. But for the Avalon – a full-sized sedan that has until now been comfortable as a bastion of top-notch quality, durability and reliability – the change is downright striking.
That’s why we sat down with Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s Calty design studio, who oversaw Avalon’s dramatic transformation that will, hopefully, appeal to a different generation of drivers.
Driver’s Seat: What was the process of designing this car?
It was designed in the Calty design studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We are trying to go after Generation X with this car in a big way. So that means a lot of aggressive styling. Something more purpose-driven. We’re trying to go after a different mindset and a different image.
How does that balance with the typical Avalon customer?
We won’t discount our loyal Avalon buyers. They’re critical to the segment. But they want to feel youthful and progressive. We try to appeal to their mindset as well with a more aggressive approach to our design statement.
As a designer, how in tune are you with the market and what Gen X wants? And how do you incorporate that?
We think Gen X appreciates the engineering and technical aspects of products. We’ve been moving in a more sculptural and bold direction. These are very taut surfaces. We tried to get more crispy edges, even in our sheet metal stamping. We created a more engineered and technical look, while maintaining beauty.
What does Avalon represent to its customers?
We think of this car for people with older children who may be moving out of the house. Avalon is sort of a reward vehicle. You did a good job raising your kids, they’re gone, what do you want for you now? This is that car.
Progress in Motion -- Calty's Avalon design marks a step forward for Toyota's lineup, further implementing TMC President Akio Toyoda's vision of more heart-pounding design.

Where does this aggressive look for cars like Camry and Avalon come from?
Fundamentally, it starts at the top. That’s Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) President Akio Toyoda. He’s set a mandate that we’re not making boring cars anymore. Once you have a high vision at the top, that really releases everybody to just go after it and make a big impact, make a huge statement about who we are as a company. It’s a lot of effort to produce a car. Let’s make something we’re proud of. Let’s make something dramatic that gets people excited.
What part of Avalon stands out to you?
For me, I love the rear view. There’s an interesting thing going on with the back bumper. It’s angled forward and the lights have this technical wing shape. There’s a lot of deep sculpture in the rear that you don’t normally see on sedans.
What are you getting asked about most?
The front face. I was expecting people to say, “Can grilles get any bigger than that?” The problem we’ve had in the past is we were worried about appealing to literally everybody. And that’s how we got into doing some bland designs. So, we’re fine with polarized design now. If it’s iconic – if it has identity that’s memorable – that’s what we’re looking for in our cars.
How closely did you work with (Avalon Chief Engineer) Randy Stephens to get this right?
Our relationship with Randy is incredibly tight. Nothing can be done without engineering support. But the great thing about this Avalon is that we set a vision very early about what we want to achieve, and everyone was on board with it. To get design involved at the early stage of packaging development and design expression is critical. We had a great sketch, and everyone came on board to achieve it.
What factors do you have to consider when you design a car?
We’re always pushing for higher expression, more drama, all these things we think are gonna appeal to the buyer. But we also have safety issues, plant issues and manufacturing issues to think about. So there are a lot of things on the table. Cost factors in also. What can we do with this vehicle and still be profitable? We have to have a balanced approach to that. But design has a pretty good seat at the table now with Toyota culture. The reality is, we need more bold design, we need more exciting design. If we can set a vision early on of what that can be, and get everyone rallying behind that, we can have a big impact.
Who takes these ideas to TMC? Is it you guys? Engineering? Marketing?
We have to be together in what our messaging is in North America from planning, design, sales, engineering. We set a very high bar for ourselves to reach together. And when we go to TMC with a unified proposal, and TMC senses North America is strongly advocating for something, that sends a confident message, they know that we’re serious about developing something with impact.
Is this collaborative approach relatively new?
We learned that over time. We have a lot of unique products for North America. Avalon is one, Tundra, Tacoma, Sienna. Because of that, TMC’s given TMNA a lot of freedom to create the image of these products. We have a lot of responsibility now. I really feel good about all the groups working more closely now. I’m not gonna say we always agree. We don’t. But in the end, we come together as a unified team and present something we all believe in and we’re all proud of.
Team Effort -- At its January debut in Detroit, it was clear that making Avalon a success involves plenty of teamwork. While Hunter (far right) led design, (from left) Group Vice President and General Manager, Toyota Division Jack Hollis has his eye on sales; Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky President Susan Elkington will oversee assembly; and Avalon Chief Engineer Randy Stephens ensured a uniquely smooth ride. 

You’ve been designing cars at Calty since 1982. But for so long, everyone was down on Toyota designs. It was always about QDR. Was that frustrating to you?  

It was a little frustrating. Designers always want to create exciting things. I think it’s a breath of fresh air now that we have a president who wholly supports doing more exciting work. So, we’re in a really good place. To be a designer at Toyota right now is pretty exciting. This is the time to be creating new ideas.
When you hear Akio Toyoda talking about heart-pounding excitement in our cars, does that renew your vigor?
Yes! That resonates with me. I love to drive cars, so the whole notion of creating cars that not only look amazing but actually perform well, that’s spectacular. I love that we’re putting the whole package together now. It’s not only design, it’s performance, engineering, safety. We’re doing it all now.
How much influence do you have on Toyota’s overall design? Even for models that aren’t Calty-created?
Honestly, we have a lot of influence in Toyota cars lately. Even the new RAV4 was part of our interior development. Sometimes we have big influence, like with LC 500. The Corolla Hatchback is partially a Calty design. It depends on the cars. We’ve had a lot of influence.
Are we in a golden age for Calty?
It’s a great time for design at Toyota. Calty being part of the bigger design function is wonderful for us. We get more and more support from TMC all the time. And just the notion of TMC craving innovative design, exciting design, bold design? That gets us going. That gets me up in the morning, wanting to come in and work on our next project. It’s an exciting time for us, for the whole company. And we’re going to do everything we can to make a difference and make an impact.
By Dan Nied
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