Toyota Dips Its Toes into “Urban Utility”
One of the questions that keeps automotive CEOs up at night these days is a pretty basic one—if all the young people move to the cities, will they still buy cars? It’s a valid one with plenty of data driving it. The rural-to-urban migration trend is happening worldwide. It’s so well-established it has a Wikipedia entry. We’re already there in the U.S. with more than 75 percent of the country urbanized.
Then there’s the concern about the younger generation of car buyers overall. Do they even like cars? Will they buy them if they don’t have to? Again, there’s data on this front.
So how do automakers respond? That’s never a rhetorical question as the response has to be a youth-oriented urban vehicle. Not that the streets of San Francisco and New York aren’t already littered with Kia Souls and Scions along with a cache of used BMWs. Toyota has stepped up to the challenge with a concept car it has no intention of ever building. In fact, they say they never intended to show it outside the company.
Somewhere along the line they changed their collective minds and the U2 (not to be confused with the Irish band) showed up in San Francisco at the opening of the Maker Faire, which not coincidently numbered Toyota as one of its sponsors.
U2 Design — Function Over Form
So does it hit the mark? The Toyota U2 (for Urban Utility, of course) looks like a slightly bloated version of a Ford Transit or one of the other Euro-derived truck/vans, so it has the utility nailed pretty well. It’s somewhere between that
commercial vehicle paradigm and a car-based SUV like the Nissan Juke.
The utility aspect is augmented by a trick tailgate that folds down to become a ramp and an interior designed to swallow bikes and kayaks alike.
The short wheelbase definitely extends the urban theme as parking and maneuvering in the city calls for tight turning circles and the ability to squeeze into small spaces. As one of the Toyota presenters summed it up
Then there’s an aggressive grille and wheels that look good but can still take punishment from curbs because they have mini composite skid plates to protect the metallic portion of the wheels. It’s probably the most memorable Toyota front end since the FJ Cruiser, which not coincidently was also designed at Toyota’s Southern California Calty Studio.
Calty’s president, Kevin Hunter, said the goal with the U2 was “minimum size; maximum use” and a “tool-like” vehicle. It’s roughly the same size as a Scion xB, but while he characterized it as a “design exercise,” he quickly added that it was not a “frivolous idea.”
The Toyota U2 concept takes on a phenomenon that is evident in the real automotive world—vehicles being used for functions other than that which they were intended to be used for. It could function as a four-passenger around-town car but quickly transform into a utility vehicle complete with sliding roof that could accommodate tall items. Hunter said it was intended to straddle the personal space and functional uses of a car, that it was supposed to be “purposeful yet playful.” Throughout the interior are highly functional touches such as sliding bars that could be used to secure items in back, but
have a polished design look that takes them well-beyond a simple tie-down. Next to the driver is a removable tablet that can function both as the car’s nav system and your personal iPad when you exit.
Good Fuel Economy Key
It’s only a concept, but Toyota made it clear that this exercise would have to have good fuel economy to be a contender in any future urban car contest. So the question was asked—what kind of powertrain does the U2 contain? Well, maybe with a little embarrassment, the Toyota representative admitted the concept didn’t really have an engine. Well, I guess that would make it a zero emission vehicle, so it would probably be welcomed in San Francisco. Of course, Toyota doesn’t appear currently to be inclined toward battery electric vehicles, favoring its tried-and-true hybrids or fuel cells as the future more fuel efficient direction.
The Maker Faire did seem an appropriate showcase for the U2 since it is an event marked by entrepreneurs seeking their own approach to a hobby or business. The Toyota U2 concept is a car built of fiberglass that incorporated several parts created using a 3D printer. It may not be a prototype for how cars will be made, but it’s a good example of how to get ideas into a three-dimensional form very quickly. Like most concept cars, it presents a variety of ideas and, if nothing else, should engage its target audience in a healthy debate about what constitutes urban utility in a vehicle.
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