Can you guess which 2021 vehicle was designed with a bullet train and the Toyota Supra as inspiration? I'll give you a clue: it has kick-open sliding doors and can act as a cargo vehicle, family car, camping mule, or party bus. Ok, fine, I'll tell you, it's the Toyota Sienna minivan.
I know, most folks don't like to say the word that starts with an M, ends with N, and has “iniva” in the middle, so let’s call it an updated Toyota family vehicle built on the new TNGA-K platform with the biggest factory wheels on any... car.
With that out of the way, rebuilding the Sienna for 2021 from the ground up posed a tough question for Toyota designers: is it necessary to sacrifice emotion just because it’s a minivan?
Calty Design Research, Toyota’s design operations arm in Southern California, focuses on future innovation and creativity. Its Ann Arbor, Michigan studio concentrates on product design development for North America, and together they took on the challenge of making the new Sienna look unlike any other minivan on the market—in a good way.
Looking closely at the profile of the 2020 Sienna next to a 2021 Sienna, you’ll first notice the front end has a new attitude. It’s got curves and it isn’t afraid to flaunt them. During a chat with members of the Calty team, I learned that it wanted the Sienna to elicit feelings of pride and assertiveness, emotions more akin to sports cars, trucks, and big SUVs.
In a special class led by Calty designers and clay modelers, I had a chance to try my hand at first sketching, then shaping a clay form to better understand the design and build iterations of the process.
“This Sienna project was a fun challenge for us because we don’t often get to create a cool minivan,” said Calty design lead Matt Sperling. “We get to dream big in the early phase and that is important because sometimes early on you don’t know what you can accomplish. The point of dreaming big early is setting a vision."
"In car design terms, we call it ‘cheating the sketch’; it means we set a higher bar for where we want to go, and that gives designers the opportunity to step out of the boundaries to create something more exciting,” he added.
As he sketched, Sperling kept his brushstrokes light and free. As the three-quarter view took shape, the front fascia became clear as the lines of the wheel wells, grille, and wraparound headlamps emerged.
From the sketches, the modelers take over, but the process is far from finished. In fact, modeler Dion Covelli says they’re not just executing a design; he has seen a lot of designs improve in 3D. As we smoothed and cut and trimmed our own blocks of clay, we could feel the shape shifting in our hands.
“In the 3D process, we’re still designing,” Covelli said. “Not everything can be completely known when we get to 3D, and the modeler has to make a lot of creative decisions on curves and angles that affect every aspect.”
Covelli tells young modelers that it takes at least five years to become proficient at it, and he doesn’t believe it can ever be mastered as there are always new challenges. The beauty of working in a production modeling department, he says, is that they get to problem solve, and as a modeler that’s where they gain experience.
In the case of the Sienna, the A-pillar touchdown was a complicated area for production. There was a certain angle that had to hold and the welder labored intensively in a 100-millimeter area off the hood cut line to come up with a solution. Sometimes in the process of modeling, there is a hard line that can’t be encroached by even a half millimeter to clear a component or a crash requirement. And those kinds of hard lines often come in late in the game, when they’re moving toward the finish line.
There can be a lot of headaches along the way.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Covelli said. “The gremlins live in the highlights; that’s where you can break a beautiful model.”
For final production design, it’s always finished in clay. Even once it goes into computer-aided design (CAD), it’s milled back into clay to look at it in three dimensions again to ensure that it looks great from every possible angle.
After the final clay model was approved and the Sienna put into production, the result revealed a longer and wider vehicle, gaining a little more than three inches from front to back and nearly a half inch across. The haunches are creased and more aggressive, and a sprite of a cowlick spoiler zips off the back end. The designers use words like optimistic, cool, confident, active.
This is not the same silhouette of the lozenge-shaped minivans of yore. It looks as though the modeler felt defiant during the process and carved bigger, more pronounced chunks from the sides than he intended. It's as if the Sienna is telling us: “Yeah, I’m a minivan. What’s it to ya?”
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