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Ian Cartabiano designs Toyota motor cars

Hired straight from graduating by Toyota's Calty Design Research studios near Los Angeles, Ian Cartabiano's path was laid out early. His mother was a sculptor, his father an industrial designer and the family were car nuts.

He toyed with the idea of becoming a film director, but the cars won out when Toyota signed him on in 1997. So now Cartabiano drives a Toyota-engined Lotus Elise and a bunch of Toyota cars he helps design.

Calty senior executive Erwin Lui says the design studio is a “conduit for American tastes and the American market”.

Toyota's sales volume, and direct involvement, in the US auto industry has grown considerably since the mid-1990s. Toyota in Japan recognises the worldwide influence of the Californian culture.

This is a young, diverse and faddish place with a huge appetite for the latest in style and technology. Equally, California has long been a car place, a hot-rodders' and imports paradise.

Among Calty's recent design includes; the wild Toyota FJ Cruiser from 2006 creating a modern spin on the original Landcruiser, then there's the latest Tundra which is a full-sized American pickup and finally the 2007 Kluger known as Highlander in the US.

For Cartabiano, the Kluger did not come easy. “It was one of the hardest projects I've been involved with,” he says.

“The Highlander (Kluger) is our most mainstream SUV, it's like the Camry of SUVs.”

So Cartabiano's early grille for instance the strong horizontal bars, which was abandoned and deemed a little too tough.

“This car had to look strong and tough but also intelligent,” he says. “It had to have an intelligent silhouette and be proud of what it is. The previous Kluger had a kind of waddly look and the wheels looked like they had been sucked in.”

The new philosophy for Toyota design, still being analysed and understood, is “vibrant clarity”. Automotive design has become more a marketing tool in recent years, manufacturers chasing individual expressions to define the “face” of each car family, he says.

Cartabiano gave the Kluger a new wheel focus, a stronger face with more style muscle to the bonnet and more shoulder to the rear. There is the hint of flare over the mudguards and both 17-inch or 19-inch wheels fill out the guards.

There is a more athletic look to this next Kluger, without disguising the cabin length and the fact that this is a seven-seater SUV.

“There had to be a balance between form and function,” Cartabiano says.

He is happy with the production version although, while understanding the need to tone it down, he does miss that original design for the Kluger grille. The end result is a more sophisticated style than the original wagon, inside and out.

The new Toyota Kluger is smarter all round, with some similarities to its little brother the RAV4 and Hyundai's Santa Fe.