Toyota: the new king of mainstream sports?

Branding and its flaws…

A Citroën is always super-comfortable. It’s wrong. A German is super well finished. It is also false. A Japanese is super reliable. This is not true either since, like its rivals, Toyota has already experienced the throes of recall campaigns and its D-4D diesels have not left only good memories. In short, as with many things, stereotypes are part of automotive folklore and are difficult to eradicate. It is however on the way of the change of its image that Toyota committed ten years ago.

Good sturdy cars but not sexy for a penny and as moving to drive as starting a dishwasher, it is, forcing the line, the image that the Japanese manufacturer dragged like a ball, especially in Europe. We are far from it today. If the Japanese manufacturer has become the reference of the hybrid by believing in it the first since 1997 with its Prius whose fifth generation has just been revealed, dusting has also arrived via an area where it was not necessarily expected. …that of the sports car. Buckle up, we’ll explain.

In the WRC, Toyota will put its title back into play at the next Monte Carlo, which will start in January 2023.
In the WRC, Toyota will put its title back into play at the next Monte Carlo, which will start in January 2023.© Toyota Gazoo Racing

My Toyota is fantastic…but not sporty?

Sports cars are nothing new at Toyota. First of all, history remembers that the manufacturer was the first in the land of the rising sun to try out motor racing in the late 1950s. Then everything goes crescendo. Circuit, passage in Formula 1 and of course Rally, Toyota has rubbed shoulders with all disciplines or almost and this has borne fruit like the last titles gleaned no later than this year 2022 in WEC (endurance) and in WRC (world rally championship).

But if motorsport is good for the image, it is not necessarily the key to selling homologated sports cars, especially when your name is not Ferrari or Porsche. Indeed, without denigrating their qualities, the Celica, Supra and other MR certainly have their fans but they have never been unanimous among sports car enthusiasts. Engine not punchy enough or chassis not sharp enough, not to mention a design probably not sexy enough…perfection, it is true, does not exist in this world. Moreover, like that applied to the world of art, automobile criticism is also a matter of subjectivity. But beyond these digressions, Toyota had so far not found the formula to thrill all car enthusiasts with character with series sports cars. Until Gazoo…

The GR Yaris is a super-GTI. No doubt the key to its success because the species is now rare
The GR Yaris is a super-GTI. No doubt the key to its success because the species is now rare©Toyota

Gazoo Racing: wasabi in the “Toys”

Sometimes the names change only for the beauty of the gesture. When TS (for Toyota Sport) became Gazoo Racing in 2015, the event went under the radar and even more so the idea behind it all: the Toyota boss’ desire to create sports cars with character.

Akio Toyoda, also the grandson of the brand’s founder, is a fan of motorsport, a true enthusiast who likes to put words into action by taking control of the wheel. This passion is not feigned since before the modern era of Toyota Gazoo Racing, we owe him with his teams the birth of the extraordinary Lexus LFA supercar, 500 of which were produced between 2010 and 2012 and, more generally, of the GT86, a small coupé offering old-fashioned driving sensations designed in collaboration with Subaru.

The first stone of the Gazoo house, Toyota lays it with the sympathetic limited series of 600 Yaris GRMN copies in 2017 then by reviving a symbol, the Supra in 2019. But at a time when development costs are increasingly high Toyota decides, to design it, to join forces with BMW. Z4 on one side, Supra on the other, the duo presents a mixed result with certainly good performances but driving pleasure, in particular because of perfectible ground connections and steering, not quite made by appointment. So much the better, because it makes the surprise of the next move all the greater…

Toyota has modified the suspensions and settings of the Supra coupe in 2022. The progress is notable.
Toyota has modified the suspensions and settings of the Supra coupe in 2022. The progress is notable.©Toyota

GR Yaris: the stroke of genius

At the end of 2019, a year before the market launch, Toyota invites some specialized media, including Automobile Magazine, to drive prototypes of the GR Yaris. Immediate love at first sight, the encounter with this bomb will lead to a long year of waiting before discovering the two final versions, the Track standing out for the most radical approach. Devil, at a time when the vast majority of generalist manufacturers are abandoning the genre, the Japanese manufacturer is indeed drawing a sports car, a real one, capable of giving XXXXXXL driving pleasure. It’s a double masterstroke from Toyota. Not only and because it is successful, his GR Yaris would have somehow managed to find his audience, but as the latter is faced with a scarcity of supply, his bombinette becomes simply unavoidable.

Presenting with its four-wheel drive and its three-cylinder turbo of 261 hp characteristics worthy of a good rally car, the GR Yaris is obviously very powerful. But it is above all really nice to drive whatever the level of the one who holds the hoop with behavior (adaptable via three driving programs that modulate the distribution of torque between the axles) that is both rigorous and predictable. Card (deserved) in many countries, it is rumored that this Super Yaris could also benefit from an additional dose of testosterone. We look forward ! As for the Supra, note that for the past few weeks, Toyota has now offered a version with a manual gearbox and has reviewed the suspension and steering settings. We are still more in the Grand Touring spirit than pure and hard sports, but we must salute the progress made.

The Automobile Magazine was able to preview a prototype of the GR Yaris.
The Automobile Magazine was able to preview a prototype of the GR Yaris.©Toyota

GR86: confirmation

By dint of one-upmanship and spectacular videos on social networks, one would end up believing that a pleasure automobile must make 78,000 horsepower and cost 890 million dollars to be really nice. It’s wrong. Counter-examples, starting with the stainless and affordable Mazda MX-5 prove it brilliantly. In the same spirit but cut and a little sharper to drive, Toyota adds to the register its GR86. Derived from the GT86 and, moreover, like it, equipped with an old-fashioned breathable flat four-cylinder, that is to say without supercharging, this “GaRnement” tears up the specifications of many modern sports cars accelerating like dragsters but tasteless and heavy as trucks.

Lively, playful, slender, the GR86 coupé does not drive its elbow to the door while whistling but demands to be whipped (a treat with the mechanical gearbox in perfect control). We don’t walk around, we drive for real a propulsion that behaves as such, with a mobile rear axle as the insiders like it. Admittedly, this affirmed character will not please everyone and alas in France, despite a price that has nothing to do with that of a supercar, the ugly ecological malus 2023 (21,966 €) condemns this GR86 to be a rare bird. But what a foothold and what a demonstration from the Japanese manufacturer who knows how to create character cars like we hardly ever do anymore.

High sound level, firm suspensions, and rather virile controls: this GR 86 is not intended for travel. But as soon as the road turns...
High sound level, firm suspensions, and rather virile controls: this GR 86 is not intended for travel. But as soon as the road turns…©Toyota

Capital sympathy

At a time when the vast majority of generalist manufacturers are reducing the airfoil or even abandoning the passion car, the Japanese giant is becoming a sort of bastion for orphans who love “mainstream” sports cars. Who would have believed it ten years ago? It now remains to make this sympathy capital bear fruit and to maintain it in a context that is by no means obvious. It is certain that the future of sports cars will at least go through hybridization, not to mention total electrification, land that the world No. 1 is already exploiting for the car of M everyone. So there is no reason not to continue…

Toyota: the new king of mainstream sports?