A Sporty Toyota
By Bruce McCulloch
Suffice to say, it’s an interesting moment in time for the Japanese motor company that is Toyota. Never in their some-60 year history has the company ever had such recognition. As most enthusiasts are already aware, Toyota is now the world’s biggest automotive manufacturer, and much of this can attributed to Toyota’s great value as automobiles, consistency of goods, but ultimately, their quality and reliability.
But of course, not all things can last and with Toyota’s stratospheric growth over the last decade or so, the company now has to contend with a series of appalling growing pains. Through the 90’s for instance, Toyota was a company with more or less of a spic-and-span clean reliability sheet. And not just overall reliability, but everything from quality to recalls. I’m not implying they were perfect by any means, but in contrast with today’s Toyota, they seemed to be miles ahead.
Obvious fault aside, not all is bad for enthusiasts of the brand. Oh no, in fact Toyota has been feeding us Toyota-nutters a decent dose of car-candy over the last couple years, and by that I’m referring to Toyota’s new aim/direction on sportiness. And as is well-known, sportiness –or the lack thereof – has always been a great criticism of company. Not anymore though, especially as it’s clear that Toyota of the future is aiming to capture the hearts and minds of more enthusiasts than they ever have before.
Now, of course, that’s not to say that Toyota’s history is completely oblivious of sporty cars. I need not remind anyone of such greats as the 2000 GT, nor the Celica, the Supra or the MR2. They’re cars which not only changed the general perception of Toyota as an automobile company, but contributed a great deal towards promoting the Japanese sports car.
Truth be told though, Toyota has most always stayed in the conservative arena in regards to developing sporty vehicles. Especially in comparison with not only rivals from around the world, but even fellow country manufacturers such as Nissan and Honda. And as we entered the ‘90’s, it was clear that Toyota had little, if any, intention of promoting the brand as anything to do with sport. As Lexus had just been introduced as the alternative to German luxury with the added kick of stronger reliability, Toyota its self concentrated on promotion of its bread and butter vehicles – the Camry and the Corolla to be specific.
In those years, focus and promotion of “sport” models slowly headed towards the bright light of death. The MR2, for instance, which had been known as a blistering go-kart with a seat-of-the-pants ride, turned into something much mushier with the release of the early 90’s generation. Whereas the late 80’s model had considerable focus on small dimensions and it possessed true sports-car genes, the MR2 Turbo was much more indolent in comparison. And it was the same story for the 90’s generation of the Supra. The MK2 of 1985, was tight, well-heeled and offered a great deal of road connection, whereas subsequent generations seemed to be ever-so dampened in regards to sport. Don’t get me wrong, both the MK3 of the late 80’s and MK4 of the early 90’s were indeed great cars, but it seemed as if the Supra was not only getting more powerful and bigger, but ultimately, becoming a grand touring vehicle. There’s little doubt that Toyota was purposely treating the 4th generation Supra as a higher force amongst the automotive world, when in my home country (nowhere other than the “Great White North”), the mid 90’s GT was a full $20,000 more expensive than the preceding model.
And yet, oddly enough, one of the Toyota’s most impressive “sport-oriented” vehicles was the one that looked to be the exact opposite – the “Cressida” (particularly the last generation -1988-1992). And the irony of that remains that the Cressida was always one of the brand’s most criticized vehicles; a vehicle often described as being both “tedious” and “nondescript”. In all fairness though, the Cressida’s exterior did very little to give anyone a clue as to what the car was really like. Though you need not take my word for it, just ask its owners who often referred to the car as “a 4 door Supra”. Although, in my honest opinion, the Cressida was actually the better of the two vehicles when it came to offering thrills. Not only because it was amazingly well balanced, but boasted a great deal of connection to the road; all in all, a Japanese BMW if you will.
And as the century came to a close, Toyota’s sporty line-up of vehicles became pretty much non-existent. Not only had the Supra since long been put out of production, but the MR2 had further turned into a hairdresser’s fashion accessory with the sex appeal of a toad.
Additionally, Toyota had always been a company who had been quite conservative on power figures in the past. Whereas the Americans and the German’s had been a tandem of power wars, the Japanese auto firm always managed to stay in the background with very few of their vehicles breaching the 300bhp mark. Evidently, Toyota wanted nothing do with creating powerful and sporty cars, but that all was eventually to come to an end.
Fast forward to the turn of the 20th century, and you’ll notice Toyota is attempting to not so much as change its old ways, but create a new division of status to attract a new demographic of young and hip enthusiasts who are interested in sporty body kits and flashy bits of kit. Vehicles such as the Matrix, the Yaris and the FJ Cruiser are all evidence of this particular swing towards the direction of sport. Even the all new 2009 Corolla – arguably the most boring of all Toyotas – looks decisively more sporty now, much more than it ever has before.
And need I even remind anyone of Toyota’s lastest and hippest brand aimed purely at the youth of America, Scion? With Scion, Toyota has been able to create a car just for those crazy modification junkies who like to race, or, simply be seen as cutting-edge in the downtowns of our cities.
As has been evident by the lineup, Lexus has never been about being even the least bit sporty. In fact, Lexus has always been just the opposite – the brand for those who don’t care for sport and flash, but rather understated designs, seamless luxury and comfort. And why would anyone expect anything else when the company has built a very solid reputation on just that?
For the longest of time we had seen Lexus’ great reluctance to give their cars the proper power boosts they deserved. That all seemed to change however, with the release of the 2nd generation IS compact-saloon in early 2005. Whereas the 1st generation IS was a decent attempt at dethroning the BMW 3-Series, the subsequent generation has been a much stronger effort. It’s an effort which not only proved that Lexus could develop a vehicle that little bit closer to the 3-Series, but also one capable of out-gunning it; do take note that the 2005 IS350 was the first of the compact-saloons to possess over 300bhp.
Meanwhile, the introduction of the 4th generation LS flagship saloon has revealed that the company has now decided to bring their personal power game to a whole new level by allowing it not only breach the 300bhp mark (380bhp to be exact), but even the 400bhp mark with the LS600h (430bhp to be exact).
The Beginning of the sporty Lexus – The IS-F:
Thanks to Toyota’s hushed nature in regards to building sporty cars, there were a lot of folks who had (understandably) dismissed the idea of a true thoroughbred sports-saloon from Lexus. With the release of the 2008 IS-F however, Toyota’s engineers and determination cannot be faulted in any way.
As an enthusiast of the brand, I knew things were a little different this time around; in other words, none of that false “slap on a body kit and install a big engine thus eventually leading to slapdash, uninhibited handling”. It was clear that with addition of 14.2-inch Brembo brake callipers at the front end, 255mm Michelin tyres at the rear, BBS alloys and a suspension a full inch lower than the standard item that this IS was a serious effort. But of course, the question remained: would the IS-F be a true sports saloon, or just another hash attempt?
Initial doubts aside, the IS-F has done well to prove disbelievers wrong. Magazines from the colonies such as “Road & Track” and “Motor Trend” have had much praise to give this new super Lexus. Implying that it’s everything that one did not expect from a Lexus – it’s harsh, rough and angry while adding a degree of sporty finesse. One magazine described the car as being even too “hardcore” for the road – and remember, this is a Lexus we’re talking about here, not a Lotus. Yet other magazines have described the car as being truly hardcore, whilst still retaining a great deal of the brand’s usual road characteristics.
Meanwhile, even scores of European journalists –arguably the harshest of critics when it comes to Lexus vehicles – have given the IS-F a very fair amount of positive press.
The performance figures you ask? Since when was a Lexus capable of hitting naught-to-sixty in just 4.2 seconds (* Road & Track)? Never before is the answer, and that’s exactly what takes the company to a whole new level.
And that is all without even mentioning the interior, or the exterior design of the vehicle. Its little secret that Lexus’ are often criticized for their rather safe and understated designs, but the same cannot be said for the IS-F which manages to be aggressive throughout the entirety of its design detailing. Some even feel that the new super IS a bit too flashy for even a Lexus.
And what about the LF-A supercar expected to arrive some time in 2009? Watch out folks, watch out.
The obvious verdict being that things at Toyota are indeed changing, and in a manner which is very positive for enthusiasts. I’m not implying that Toyota will change its ways overnight, but its clear there’s a new direction for Toyota and affiliated on the horizon. As one of Toyota’s very biggest fans, I’m happy to see it and I am really very much looking forward to next few years of Toyota and Lexus products.
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