Future Models - Toyota X-Runner

Toyota X-Runner Future ute: The X-Runner is Toyota Australia's first concept car and a strong indicator of its design power.

Future ute: The X-Runner is Toyota Australia's first concept car and a strong indicator of its design power.

Toyota Australia's X-Runner concept is a platform to the future

CONCEPT cars are a protected species - so protected that even we motoring scribes seldom get more than a distant gawk under lights at a motor show.

But not in the case of Toyota Australia's first concept car, the X-Runner utility, which was revealed to the world for the first time at the Melbourne motor show in late February.

We are the first outsider in the world to drive the bright green two-door that Toyota hopes will spring from a home-grown recreational vehicle manufacturing base Down Under.

A product of the Australianised Toyota Modular Platform, X-Runner is a show of design, development and engineering strength that could become reality within two years.

If approved by Toyota Motor Corporation, the project could also herald a brave new era in research and development for TMCA, which may in turn lead to local and export production of more locally designed and built TMP-based derivatives.

But we've done more than just drive X-Runner. Today we'll fill you in on the motives behind its creation and the concept of the product that finally emerged.

On Friday we'll bring you the technical wrap-up of X-Runner and our drive impressions.

Platform to the future

IT WOULD be easy to dismiss X-Runner as a knee-jerk reaction by Toyota Australia to the all-wheel drive craze currently being embraced by its fellow local manufacturers.

While Mitsubishi led the way by releasing the first all-paw Australian car - the Magna AWD in January - Toyota has ambitions more closely related to Holden and Ford, which will both release all-wheel drive wagons within 12 months.

Although Ford has placed many of its eggs in the Territory wagon crossover, which was shown in near-production form in Melbourne this year and is projected to sell in numbers up to 32,000 by 2007, it is likely Toyota will tread more of a niche product path like Holden, which will release an AWD wagon and the Cross8 AWD ute later in 2003.

Toyota officials say production of an all-wheel drive vehicle like the X-Runner ute - or any other bodystyle, including coupe, wagon or convertible - could be as little as two years away if approved.

But the bigger picture is that Toyota wants the ability to design vehicles from the ground up, not just assemble them, in the same way that Holden produces various cost-effective derivatives from the same Commodore base for both local and export consumption.

"Holden are really quite incredible how they can milk so much out of what is effectively one platform," said the man responsible for creating X-Runner, Peter Eustace.

"What we're trying to simulate is what can we do with this modular platform and Holden has shown us that this is exactly what you can do relatively simply."

Integrally related to the X-Runner project is Toyota Australia's bid for a key role in a new Asia Pacific research and design facility that Toyota in Thailand is also chasing.

Toyota Australia will get a share of the facility, but now the fight is on to decide which areas of responsibility will be allocated here and which go to Thailand.

Toyota says production of the TMP-based X-Runner is not dependent on the fight for the lion's share of roles within the R&D facility, which could include a virtual cave such as Holden used to fast-track development of the Monaro to just 19 months.

But it would make further TMP derivatives more likely.

If approved by TMC, X-Runner itself certainly bolsters the local arm's chances.

"We have the capability to put something like this together with the engineering ability we have now," said Mr Eustace.

"It's not totally dependent on what happens in the future, but it still needs a business case and approval from the parent company.

"Because it's a Toyota Australia project, we're looking at it as if it was going ahead as a search and seek activity. The current situation is we have local input, but Japan has control over our destiny. This is a situation where we've got control of our destiny.

"We'd like to think the R&D centre would give us greater control of our destiny.

"There's no denying it opens up other doors. I think the virtual reality studio that Holden has is obviously the ultimate, but it's not everything.

"With this vehicle we're saying we've expressed ourselves and developed something that's generated a lot of interest.

"We have the ability to do it - give us the chance to make a fully Australianised version of a vehicle rather than a global vehicle that doesn't necessarily suit our unique market."

"We'd like to think that that sort of facility would be on the agenda. It's been a massive engineering challenge from our end, and the outcome was very exciting to achieve."

Mr Eustace said Toyota Australia had a reasonable say in what happens with its commercial vehicles because this was an important market to Japan.

"But when it comes to things like Camry and Avalon we're almost insignificant. We are limited in the freedom that we have," he said.

Meanwhile, the facelifted Avalon due later this year has been completed out of the Melbourne office of German design company Edag, under Toyota Australia direction.

The facelifted locally-built Camry due in 2004 takes another step by being designed in-house at Port Melbourne headquarters while the Avalon replacement - due in 2005 - is another car the company hopes to develop locally.

Launching X-Runner at the Melbourne show, Toyota Australia vice-president John Conomos said it was "a demonstration of the capability (Toyota) needs in this country in order to produce future models. It shows that we are ready and able to do this type of development for the next (Camry/Avalon).

"The X-Runner shows that we can build an all-wheel drive, we can go off road if we wish to, we can build an on-road AWD passenger car or, from this platform, we can build an SUV as well."

That SUV should be the next generation Kluger, which is under consideration for local production at the Altona plant in Melbourne.

Mr Eustace said the development of a number of other TMP-based derivatives, possibly including an all-wheel drive Camry/Avalon, was already under way, while discussions with TMC "delivering the message that we would like to have greater design flexibility and freedom" had also taken place.

"We've got some other projects on the go as well which will complement what we've shown with this vehicle. Concept cars are basically designed to test the market. Reaction from Melbourne was quite remarkable. The interest that it's generated internally has sparked a lot of enthusiasm.

"We seem to have hit on a nerve here and our Japanese president is 200 per cent behind it. We didn't do this for nothing."

Toyota's toast to Australia

TOYOTA admits the timing of X-Runner's appearance at the Melbourne motor show was designed to spoil Ford and Holden's all-wheel drive party, but is this bright green Toyota ute concept a little too far fetched?

TMCA associate director and divisional general manager product engineering Max Gillard does not think so, citing the monocoque utility's popularity Down Under.

"The Toyota Modular Platform used on Avalon was accepted as the starting point for X-Runner," he said.

"From there, the team reviewed the market, established a theoretical target customer and developed a vehicle concept and specification to suit.

"We can make a four-door sedan concept car or convertible or a coupe, but this concept is really exclusive to Australia. We wanted something that would identify with the local market.

"It's a very big step. From where we have been seen as just adopting TMC or Japanese design, X-Runner has really proven to ourselves and TMC ... that we are capable of matching it with anyone else."

Project leader Peter Eustace admits the time was ripe to go for maximum exposure.

"This was the perfect opportunity to move to the next step. We needed to make a statement and this was the ideal time. It's where we needed to move," he said.

"Four-wheel drive is also flavour of the month. Australians relate to utes.

"We're very successful in our sector in the ute market with LandCruiser and Hi-Lux - Toyota owns the workhorse ute market - but they (Ford and Holden) enjoy a sector of the market that we don't play in. Getting into the sports or recreational-type of vehicle is something we haven't done.

"We've shown that we can extend the body quite easily and that we can put any external cladding on we like. But that's secondary to why the vehicle was done, which was to show what we can do with TMP - it really opens up the door for all sorts of things."

Designed by a team led by former Nissan Australia chief stylist Paul Beranger, X-Runner's only carryover externals are the Avalon headlights and bonnet.

Despite an uncharacteristically aggressive new grille, the body is conservative, featuring lower front and rear bumper inserts and blacked-out wheel arches, but no chunky off-road bodywork.

Exterior mirrors incorporating indicators are courtesy of German supplier Schefenaker, while Bosch provided the parking sensors and a "pebble texture" modelled off the mountain bike's handgrips and matched to the seat and door inserts is applied either side of the rear wheels.

There are dual exhaust outlets, Allen key wheel nuts and twin roof rails, while the tailgate (complete with removable backpack) hinges from the right-hand side to expose a flat load space with four wheel-holes for the two mountain bikes.

A row of bins on either side of the tray provides lockable storage space, fridge and a global positioning system with 17-inch plasma screen.

Inside, there are two power sports seats from the Supra Turbo (re-trimmed by Autofab), a stitched leather Avalon dashboard and basic white-faced instrumentation.

A GPS-based internet monitor courtesy of Australian Arrow, touch-screen satellite navigation, six-speaker Fujitsu sound system, climate/cruise control and power windows/mirrors complete the well appointed interior.

From Friday, March 28, visit us again to read our exclusive drive impression of the Toyota X-Runner concept.






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