TOKYO -- Koji Sato said "yes" to the question, but his answer may have been barely audible over the roaring race car engines and cheering fans. It was mid-December at a motor sport circuit in Thailand and Sato had casually been asked whether he would take over as president of the world's biggest carmaker, Toyota Motor, where he has worked since 1992. Waiting expectantly next to him was his mentor and third-generation scion of Toyota's ruling dynasty, Akio Toyoda, who was planning to step down in April after 13 years at the helm.
The bespectacled, soft-spoken 53-year-old Sato assumes his duties on the first of April and will have to guide Toyota through perhaps its biggest transformation since the former textile machinery manufacturer produced its first car in 1937. As the era of the combustion engine gives way to new energy vehicles, Toyota needs to navigate this treacherous path without losing its place as the top-selling car group in the world.