Toyota and the FT-86: The Wait Goes On

Scion FR-S concept. Although each concept car looks different from the previous one, they share a shape.

While the rest of the world makes sports cars, Toyota is seemingly pretending to make one.  The FT-86 has been on the mind of every gearhead in the world since at least 2008, but since then, Toyota has been constantly tossing the concept into a microwave and pressing Reheat for every car show since. Not many specifications have hit the press, and although a tie-up with Subaru has been announced, not a whole lot is really known for sure about it.  What is going on here? Is Toyota afraid to release this car?  Or will they ever release it? Or is this just a hoax (Just kidding.)?

Toyota’s history with sports cars stretches back to the Sixties with the famed 2000GT and its cheaper successors, all of which attempted to get some of that magic into Toyota’s lineup.  The Celica, Supra, and MR2 all showed what Toyota was capable of doing when it wanted to build a sporting sort of ride.  Even the little Corolla got a hot version, the AE86–which is what the FT-86 is supposed to recall in the end.  From the 1970s until only recently, Toyota had a few sports cars in its lineup in some way, shape, or form, to bring some color and excitement to its otherwise-normal lineup of solid, reliable cars.

It feels like only a short time ago when Toyota was building stuff like this twin-turbo Supra. The FT-86 should be the first new sports Toyota in some time.

The situation today though is a complete turnaround.  The Supra was dumped in the USA after 1998.  The Celica, which went to FWD in the mid-Eighties, went rallying in the early Nineties (with a new AWD version), died a shadow of its former self in 2006.  Meanwhile, the MR2, sometimes referred to as a poor man’s exotic due to its mid-engined layout and turbocharged I4, continued until about the same time as the Celica, but was discontinued around 2005.  Since then, Toyota has been focusing on its core models, dropped most of its racing programs (for some reason it is still racing in NASCAR and in some truck racing series), and has been beefing up its aftermarket offerings for Scion, its “entry-level” brand.  Although they won’t say it, it is slowly becoming clear that during the middle of the previous decade Toyota slowly abandoned the enthusiasts’ market.  Yes, the LF-A is a huge technological achievement, but it’s so out of reach to the normal buyer that to me, it just doesn’t quite count; Lexus’s other models have been pretty boring too, save for the IS-F, which is a premium model and priced accordingly.

The styling may be a bit different from the FR-S, but the shape is largely the same, and Toyota hasn’t offered more than small amounts of information about this new sports coupe, despite its scheduled on-sale date for next year. What is going on here?

If Toyota wants to be taken seriously again by the gearhead community, they need to work harder on the FT-86 and become a bit more forthcoming about what it will really be.  After the FT-HS concept back in ’07, everyone was wondering what Toyota was up to.  The first version of the FT-86 concept surfaced in 2009, and everyone turned their heads to eyeball it.  The car’s long-hood, short deck shape and RWD configuration got people listening.  Its styling was fluid, dynamic, and of its time.  But, since then, Toyota has shown virtually the same shape at least twice, repainting it black and calling it the FT86-II and rebadging it as the Scion FR-S for the show circuit this past year.  While they have been talking about the rebadging situation and the tie-in with Subaru (who will be producing a version of it), they haven’t released a whole lot of serious information about it, save for some price points and possible power outputs, and the fact that it will be using a Subaru boxer engine.  Meanwhile, Subaru has been generous with dropping hints and pictures of their version, the so-called BRZ.  I am aware that the new sports cars are set to hit the showrooms (production starts in the spring), but Toyota has been busy showing us the same car, more or less, for a few years now and hasn’t dropped enough information to make me take it seriously.  So, will Toyota give us more information ahead of the production model’s unveiling in December at Tokyo? Or are they going to keep us in the dark?  I hope for the former–if Toyota puts as much effort towards this as they do towards the Prius, then this will be a real treat.

-Al

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