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Toyota knows it has a problem with its cars, and it has nothing to do with safety. They need to be jazzed up.

Burdened by a reputation for boring vehicles and striving to recover from a recall crisis that battered its reputation for quality, the company plans to make its cars more exciting, chief executive officer Akio Toyoda says.

Mr. Toyoda and the company's research and development chief are instilling that desire for better design and styling through the executive ranks and down to the factory floor, Mr. Toyoda told a small group of reporters during his first visit to the North American International Auto Show.

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"Both of us are intent on making Toyota cars better looking cars, so I am sure that will be the end result," he said.

The executive in charge of production and research and development, Takeshi Uchiyamada who is an executive vice-president and director of Toyota, said competitions between and within the company's three studios in Japan, California and Europe will encourage designers to be more creative and produce more distinctive vehicles.

"We are allocating even greater resources to support the creativity of our designers," Mr. Uchiyamada said.

Motor Trend magazine called the 2010 Camry sedan "horribly boring." Still, it turned out to be the best selling car in the United States last year, so sometimes bland works.

Mr. Toyoda's visit to Detroit came a little less than a year after the world's largest car company became embroiled in a media frenzy after reports of sudden acceleration in some of its vehicles that led to deaths. The company recalled several million vehicles around the world and shut several North American production plants for a month in the midst of the crisis.

The company has learned from the crisis, Mr. Toyoda and other executives said Monday.

"First of all, Toyota's cars are safe," insisted Mr. Toyoda, who is the scion of the family that founded the company as a loom manufacturer in the 1930s.

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Jim Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., the company's U.S. sales division, said the company was talking to customers during the recall maelstrom, but "we weren't really listening very well to what their true concerns were about the products and other issues."

In addition, the company did not have a good crisis team and communications between the U.S. unit and Japan were not as "robust" as they should have been, Mr. Lentz said.

Buyers punished the company.

Its sales of 1.76 million vehicles in the U.S. market were flat, compared with an overall industry increase of 11 per cent. In Canada, a plunge of 45 per cent in December sales capped off a year when overall deliveries fell 16 per cent.

Toyota Canada Inc. officials have attributed the decline in annual sales in part to an industry-wide drop in sales of subcompact and compact cars.

Mr. Toyoda embarked on a one-hour tour of the show floor and other auto maker's displays before meeting with North American reporters.

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He said he came to the show for the first time in part because the company announced a new research and safety centre to be established in Michigan and because of the launch of a new hybrid sport utility vehicle called the Prius V to join the Prius sedan.

"Every year I have watched the trends of the Detroit Auto Shows with great care," he said.

One trend evident at Toyota in messages from both the show and presentations by senior executives is that the company will focus on safety and greater attention to detail as a key component to win back customers.

Mr. Toyoda pointed to the example of rice bowls, which are available in convenience stores in Japan and whose quality is first-rate, but lack the love that Japanese mothers put in the rice bowls they make for their children.

As Japanese mothers do with their rice bowls, "we are going to put our heart and soul into each individual vehicle," he said.

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