Toyota to Build Brand Excellence with New Sports Cars

President of Toyota Motor Corporation, Akio Toyoda, is a huge fan of racing and believes this may be one solid way to improve the reputation of the automaker, still suffering lowered consumer confidence levels due to massive global recalls during the past year. Toyoda, who has been president of Toyota since the summer of 2009, intends to infuse the company’s lineup with more excitement and performance by focusing on sports cars.

The new cars will be handled by the automaker’s Sports Vehicle Management Division, which was created roughly a month before president Toyoda traveled to Washington to answer questioning by the Congress regarding the automakers handling of recalls related to the unintended acceleration of its vehicles. The aim of the new Sports Vehicle unit is to “reinforce sports vehicle product planning,” and expands on a similar group created in 2007 under Toyoda’s leadership.

The company reports that orders are being placed for the Lexus LFA supercar, which sells for $375,000. Toyota also plans to add a lower priced rear-wheel drive sports coupe to its model lineup and a sporty version of the Prius is under consideration.

Ashvin Chotai, who is the managing director of Intelligence Automotive Asia Limited says, “Cars like the LFA are brand-builders in the overall product portfolio.” He adds that they “are less about volume and more about excitement.”

The less costly sports model being planned is the FT-86 is a joint project with affiliate Fuji Heavy Industries Limited’s Subaru unit. The FT-86 is scheduled for release at the end of 2011. The high-end LFA, on the other hand, is a limited production model for which the company reports receiving 500 firm orders so far. The LFA is scheduled for production this December.

Investment banker Mark Sweeting of London has owned a number of high-end European sports cars. He said, “The LFA is technologically brilliant, but completely overpriced.” The car’s $375,000 price tag is nearly triple that of Porsche’s SE 911 Turbo.

Toyota has had past luck with some well-known sporty models such as the Supra, which was popular between 1986 and 2002 and was featured in the film “The Fast and the Furious.” The MR-S roadster was discontinued in 2007, and the Celica, produced 1970-2009, was widely popular. Toyota’s first supercar, the 2000GT, was featured in the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” in 1967.

Sports car enthusiast Kosuke Kakizawa of Tokyo owned a Toyota Cynos coup in the mid 1990s and now owns an Audi TT coupe. He says, “Toyota used to have cool sports cars like the Supra and Corolla Levin. Now, when you think of sports cars, you think of the foreign brands.”

Maurizio Raffone bought a new Prius for its fuel efficiency, not for its sportiness. He says he considers other companies when looking for a new sports car, saying, “Toyota should really focus on its cutting edge eco-friendly technology and leave the sports cars to the niche manufacturers.”

Toyota now offers “G Sports” models of its Noah and Voxy minivans, which were developed and tuned by a team that included professional race drivers. The vehicles have high performance steering and brakes and a lower suspension.

Tadashi Yamashina, senior managing director of Toyota’s sports car development, said the cars are “sporty without being hardcore sports cars” and are meant to appeal primarily to families.

Sales and profit are not the focus when considering the sports models, said Chotai of Intelligence Automotive. In Japan, in 2006, Toyota sold 1,300 MR-S models. This was the last year the vehicle was offered. That fiscal year ending in March 2007, 2.27 million cars were sold domestically.

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