Yuki Hagiwara, Ma Jie & Anna Mukai:

While Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) President Akio Toyoda is on the cusp of a record year for profit, kids nowadays make him nervous. They’re so clueless that boys without cars have the nerve to ask girls out.

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp., center, who’s said he loves the smell of gasoline, talked about his passion for cars and how they shouldn’t be commoditized like fridges, but rather loved like babies or pets.

“In the past, if you wanted to date someone, you couldn’t ask her out if you didn’t have a car,” Toyoda, 57, told a packed auditorium of about 900 Meiji University students in Tokyo on Sept. 26. “It’s all changed now. Money goes on monthly phone bills. Also, parking’s expensive and it’s easy to get around Tokyo on public transport.”

Though he’s kidding about the dating, the underlying theme is no joke. Among the biggest conundrums facing automakers: how to make cars cool again. Japan’s aging population makes the mission more critical, with passenger-vehicle sales more than 20 percent down from their 1990 highs and the proportion of drivers in their 20s at half the level when Toyoda’s generation reached an age when they could sit behind the wheel.

“Younger Japanese are quite different from the older Japanese and cars mean much less to many than 20 or 25 years ago,” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. in Tokyo, who’s been in Japan since the 1970s. “They’re more interested in tech gadgets, like the iPhone. Young people nowadays don’t have the money to buy cars too.”

As chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Toyoda is leading a one-month campaign to preach the virtues of being a motorhead to students. The presidents of Honda Motor Co., Subaru-maker Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. (7270) and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (7211) plan to follow.