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Alternate Reality: Akio Toyoda's Sports Car Problem - The Big Picture

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 2/15/2015 Angus MacKenzie

Toyota has a fascinating history when it comes to sports cars. The 2000GT of the 1960s was powered by a Yamaha-developed twin-cam straight-six and styled with enough sex appeal that a topless version -- one of two built -- earned a supporting role in the 007 classic "You Only Live Twice." The original MR2 was a bijou mid-engine Ferrari for the masses, faster than a Porsche 914 and more reliable than a Fiat X1/9. The 1987 Celica -- the one with the 3S-GE engine -- set a new benchmark for front-drive handling.

And then there was the Supra. Originally little more than a big-engined Celica, by the mid-'80s the Supra had become Toyota's flagship sports car, and by the '90s it boasted a 320-hp twin-turbo straight-six (in top-spec models), aluminum-intensive control-arm suspension all round, and even hollow-fiber carpet to reduce weight. Disable the speed limiter and the biggest, baddest Toyota of them all would blow Corollas into the weeds en route to a V-max north of 170 mph.

1996 Toyota Supra Turbo front three quarter© Provided by MotorTrend 1996 Toyota Supra Turbo front three quarter

Make no mistake, Toyota can build great sports cars. The question is, does it really want to?

News that Toyota is collaborating with BMW on a new sports car architecture -- one that will support a new-generation Z4 and the production version of the FT-1 concept that's been doing the auto show circuit -- has enthusiasts excited around the world. But history suggests this new Toyota sports car, which might bring back the Supra nameplate, will be launched with great fanfare, sell like hotcakes for a few years, then be quietly allowed to die as the company goes back to doing what it does best: building affordable, durable, and fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

Mention the FT-1 to Toyota's U.S. chief Jim Lentz and it's immediately obvious he sees a problem rather than an opportunity. Lentz says sports cars suffer from an "extreme decay cycle" in terms of sales numbers. What he means, in plain English, is that they sell well for the first two years or so, but then sales numbers rapidly fall away to the point where the car generally consumes more time and effort and financial support than is worthwhile. And he has a point: Mainstream automakers, whose businesses are built around selling modestly priced vehicles with modest profit margins, struggle with affordable sports cars. Nissan's 370Z and Mazda's Miata are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Toyota FT 1 Concept Front Three Quarters View On Road© Provided by MotorTrend Toyota FT 1 Concept Front Three Quarters View On Road

That GM has managed to keep the Corvette alive for more than 60 years seems nothing short of a miracle. But its longevity, underpinned by truly impressive engineering advances over the past decade, means the Corvette has transcended conventional mainstream automaker economics and now sits in the same semi-exotic territory as Porsche's 911. The Corvette has been through good times and bad times -- just like the 911, which was almost killed off on several occasions -- but it has survived, and is now flourishing, because of passion and perseverance. Passion and perseverance at Toyota means the Prius, the antichrist automobile to many enthusiasts but arguably still the most efficient, durable, and best-packaged compact family car on the planet.

The 15 Greatest Toyotas Ever

So why bother building a new Supra? "I think Akio [Toyoda] loves sports cars," says Lentz.

Alternate Reality: Akio Toyoda's Sports Car Problem - The Big Picture

Sports cars are simply not a part of Toyota's DNA. And that's OK. They're not in Jeep's DNA, either. So why bother building a new Supra? "I think Akio [Toyoda] loves sports cars," says Lentz simply.

Our conversation switches gears and we begin talking about the new Tacoma pickup that made its debut at the Detroit show. The Tacoma has owned the midsize truck segment for a decade, and now enjoys a 60 percent share of the market. Lentz points out the new Tacoma is the latest in a line of midsize Toyota pickups that dates back 50 years, and that the TRD versions accounted for about 40 percent of sales last year, with buyers tending to be younger than the rest of the Toyota line. Then he stops and says: "Tacoma is our sports car."

He's probably right.

Toyota FT 1 Concept Front Three Quarters View© Provided by MotorTrend Toyota FT 1 Concept Front Three Quarters View
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