January 9, 2006 One of the surprises of the North American International Automobile Show in Detroit was the F3R concept vehicle from Toyota. The surprising F3R is an exercise in providing maximum space, efficiency and athletic style from a concept all but forgotten in today's automotive world – that of the minivan. Toyota’s research showed that the younger generation of new car buyers see the mini-van as something they were “carted around in as a kid.” In order to revitalize the image of the mini-van with its three-row seating, Toyota has given the F3R a reconfigurable lounge interior. "Younger people are hanging out in their cars,” says Toyota. “When they do that, the car becomes an entertainment area - a sophisticated extension of the home.”
The project was a joint undertaking of Calty Design Research Inc., Toyota's California design studio, and the company's California-based Advanced Product Strategy group. It was commissioned because of changes in the minivan market.
"While the loyalty of minivan buyers is very high, the inflow of new buyers to the segment is low," said John Simmons, national manager, Advanced Product Strategy, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. "It continues to fall from a high of about 900,000 new buyers to the segment in 1994 to about 500,000 in 2005. Additionally, the median age of the minivan buyer, currently 51, is increasing more rapidly than in other segments of the industry."Yet we know that in spite of their stigma, minivans are great vehicles. The fundamentals make total sense. There is no more efficient vehicle," said Simmons.
"The F3R is about taking a mainstream product with a specific identity and trying to go way beyond that image," said Kevin Hunter, vice president, Calty Design Research Inc. "With its expressive design and excitement, we think it's something you'd want to drive because you desire it, not just because you need it for its function. We think that it expands the boundaries of the genre."
Starting with a simple, blue-sky request for a three-row concept vehicle, Ian Cartabiano, the Project Chief Designer for the vehicle's exterior, and Alan Schneider, Project Chief Designer for the F3R's interior, began readying sketches depicting an adaptable performance vehicle oriented toward a young family.
The decision to explore the possibilities of three-row seating made sense. "It's the most practical package there is. It's useful and versatile. But it's most often associated with minivans, and there's a stigma associated with minivans,"said Cartabiano. "I think that today's young drivers see the minivan as the vehicle they were carted around in when they were kids. It's their parents' car. They don't want anything to do with one.”
Cartabiano and Schneider began the project by listing positive attributes of the minivan. These included its space efficiency, versatility, roominess, handling, fuel efficiency and ride quality.
"We wanted to keep those, but we wanted to add styling and image. We needed performance and aggressive, upscale styling to attract male buyers, young professional women and families," said Cartabiano.
"So the challenge was to revitalize what a three-row vehicle could be. We needed to appeal to more people, with more functions for the lifestyles of buyers who are outside the definition of the usual minivan buyer. This vehicle needed to show the advantages of what three rows can do as a way of serving a market that's mostly being ignored," said Schneider. Hunter explained, "We know how vans are used and how they're configured. We wanted to look at the social aspect, and at how we could use an interior to bring families closer together to enhance their experience. So we created this relaxed lounge environment.”
Which raises the question, why a lounge interior in a motor vehicle?
Schneider has a ready answer: "Younger people are hanging out in their cars. When they do that, the car becomes an entertainment area. The F3R expands on that concept. It's a sophisticated extension of the home.” To create that extension, the design team came up with three very modern looking sets of seats. Each is unique, composed of modern, metal-edged bottoms and asymmetrical backs whose symmetry is completed by semi-integrated headrests. They can provide roomy, comfortable seating for eight adult passengers.
Up front, the driver's seat reclines and swivels, and the passenger seat reclines to form a comfortable chaise. In the middle, the right and center sections of the 40/20/40-percent second-row seats fold into the floor and the left-hand seat reclines fully to form, with the rearmost or third row, an avant-garde sofa built around the sort of conversation area you might find in an upscale home.
This is surrounded by a casual, wrap-around backrest formed by the continuous, flowing curve of the instrument panel, doors and rear seatback panels. These are accented by fiber-optic lighting panels in the seat sides, and in the F3R's right-center grand entry, that can be lit to provide illumination during lounge chat sessions.
But there's more to do here than just chat. That's because Schneider equipped the F3R with two track-mounted flat-panel video screens. These allow the vehicle's occupants to enjoy movies or games whenever they want, and to do so in complete comfort, with control supplied by an audio/video/lighting remote unit that docks in the F3R's dash.
The lounge mode would be useful any time the vehicle is not moving, Schneider said, adding, "It would be ideal when you take the kids to games or sporting events, or when you're just hanging out with friends. It's a living room away from home." But if the F3R is a living room away from home, it also offers a very comfortable and very useable motor-vehicle interior. Seating, in transport mode, is stadium-style, with each row just a little higher than the row in front of it to provide optimal passenger comfort and visibility. And it provides convenient three-door access on both sides to reflect adult-size space in all three rows.
To enhance the F3R's utility, its center-row seats stow individually, and the center seat in the middle row can be configured as a "front-and-center"child seat.
Schneider took special care to design a unique three-tier instrument panel that is, like the interior itself, dual-mode. He explained, "The upper strip, right below the windshield, has two modes – one for driving and one for lounge. When driving, it has warning lights, the transmission shift indicator, a clock and some audio. When in lounge mode, it turns an ambient blue.
"The second tier is the main meter panel for the driver. It houses all the driving functions - the speedometer, the tachometer, the fuel gauge, the screen for a navigation system and the multi-info screen for the hybrid system monitor. The lower tier is the control board with switches for controlling lights and the climate control, supplemented of course by steering-wheel switches."
But that's not all. On the far right-hand side of this lower panel is the detachable remote-control module that can be taken into the F3R's lounge to control the audio and video systems and the lounge lighting.
Schneider's design emphasizes environmentally sensitive materials, in keeping with the theme of environmental sensitivity suggested by the Hybrid Synergy Drive badging on the F3R. These materials include floor panels made from Ecoresin, a specially formulated resin that can be recycled; and a skin-friendly simulated leather seating material called Mythos that, unlike most plastics, does not produce the harmful chemical dioxin when it is burned.
Cartabiano's starting point for the F3R's exterior shape, meanwhile, featured a van that conveyed maximum volume, with a tall, wedged body shape that incorporated wide, dynamic shoulders, with its sporty 22-inch wheels and wide performance tires planted at the extreme boundaries of all four corners.
"Our thought was, don't lose the space, do gain the performance," explained Cartabiano.
He added, "But we needed to package all that interior space. So we started with that iconic wedge shape and a high beltline. And I wanted it to have an aggressive, strong face."
Cartabiano continued, "Today's minivans have a needle-nose quality. Everybody is trying to push the front really low to try to disguise the fact that the vehicle is a van. We didn't want to do that. We wanted this bold, in-your-face front end. We wanted to create presence. We want this thing recognizable. When they see it in their rearview mirrors, we want people to say, 'Oh yeah, that's the Toyota F3R!'”
Additionally, said Hunter, the design team wanted to add a quality known as "the J-factor" to the design of the F3R's nose.
Hunter explained, "We define ‘J-factor' as design elements rooted in Japanese culture that are common to Toyota as a Japanese company and will appeal to American tastes. There are a lot of vans with robust noses driving around in Japan and we are trying to impart some of that thinking into the F3R."
What the team wound up with just might be one of the more unique and recognizable front-end treatments to be seen in a while. To get there, Cartabiano started with a front-three-quarter view so he could concentrate on a nose with sculpted, high-mounted headlamps, which help hide the front fascia's corners, and on its wedge profile.
Cartabiano explained, "One of our main things is the wedge, the iconic profile. Most minivans taper toward the back. We tried to go against that grain. The sideline of the roof rises toward the back to provide room for our three rows of seating. The floor rises for stadium seating, and this wedge allows you do to this. The result is that the third row no longer is punishment, no longer is the penalty box that you don't want to ride in. It has just as much room as the first and second rows."
With the basic shape of the F3R set in his mind, and with a front-end concept sketched, Cartabiano began thinking of the rest of the F3R's surfaces, using what he describes as "wet and dry surface taste."
For the F3R's flanks, he chose a highly sculpted, flowing – or wet – shape, with fender flares smoothly integrated into the body. And for the nose and rear he went the opposite direction, choosing very clean lines and surfaces that are very simple – or, in designer-speak, dry.
Then he applied some three-dimensional shaping to the beltline, or shoulder, to get the cabin inset, so that the lower body looks wider than the greenhouse, or upper cabin.
And he came up with a rocker-panel section that incorporates what he calls a comet light-catch.
Cartabiano said, "I wanted a really strong rocker panel that plants the car on the ground, gives it a stable stance. I call it ‘comet' because it catches a highlight and it has a comet shape. It goes from thin to thick and then trails off like a comet tail."
"From a conceptual point of view, this an extremely roomy vehicle in an intelligently sized exterior. It has more interior space than you normally would have," said Cartabiano. "That was done with a long wheelbase, which gives you more length inside. Moving those wheel wells out of the way is how we get the third-row row seating with a lot of legroom. And we needed headroom, so thanks to the wedge shape, the roof is higher, floor is angled and elevated to provide a better view from all the rows. Then there's the door arrangement, with three per side, allowing access to all three rows. This is much better than what you normally would have, and it creates more the sense of a personal and sporty vehicle."
The result is that the F3R looks like a stylish performance vehicle. But the feeling inside is very airy and light.
Part of that feeling is because the D pillar is angled rearward to create a wraparound rear glass that provides a widescreen view of the world outside when the vehicle is reversing.
And though the F3R seems to have a high beltline, it isn't as high as it looks. That's the result of what the vehicle's designers call proportion tuning. Said Cartabiano, "The cabin kind of looks chopped, but the beltline is not much higher than that of the current Sienna. This look is a trick done by lowering bottom of the car, making the body look a little thicker.”
The result, of course, is a concept vehicle filled not only with intelligent drama, but with exactly the fresh take on three rows of seating, and on the usable space that vans so effectively provide, that Toyota executives were looking for. They wanted anything but a minivan. What they got was a sporty new vehicle that defies an easy label. With a dramatic, iconic shape that is as distinctive as that of the Toyota Prius and an interior that is more adaptable and more family friendly than anything previously seen, it's reasonable to suspect that the automotive world could soon be seeing styling elements from the F3R on future Toyota production vehicles.
"Certainly we are developing concept cars with the intent that they influence production cars. So we take the F3R's packaging very seriously," said Hunter. "We're looking at that design very seriously to gauge its potential as a base for a production vehicle."
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