LOS ANGELES - Toyota Motor Corp., synonymous with staid Camry sedans and Corolla small cars, is signaling a desire to get back into sports cars with a concept coupe hinting at the looks of its future performance model.
Toyota showed the FT-1 front-engine, rear-wheel-drive coupe today at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A wraparound windshield, curved body panels and flared fenders draw from past nameplates such as the Supra, 2000GT and Celica, according to Toyota, which didn’t immediately say when or if it would sell a car based on the FT-1 concept.
“I would love to have a halo sports car in the Toyota franchise. We had a long heritage in that area,” Bob Carter, U.S. senior vice president, said in an interview after the debut, declining to say if the car is a Supra prototype. “This is the FT-1 concept,” he said, without elaborating.
The world’s largest automaker, under Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda, has said it wants to add models capable of generating excitement. Toyota, based in Toyota City, Japan, sells no U.S. sports cars under its namesake brand.
Toyota’s U.S. rebound since 2012, after four consecutive annual sales declines, has come from Camrys, Corollas, RAV4 crossovers and Prius hybrids, models known for thrift and reliability rather than performance.
While Toyota added the FR-S sports coupe under its Scion line in 2012, the Lexus luxury line has been its main showcase for power and performance in recent years, with the addition of “F” edition models and the limited-production LFA supercar.
“This provocative concept truly captures the passion, excitement and energy of the Toyota we are evolving into and embodies elements of the emotion and performance that Toyota will imprint upon future production designs,” Kevin Hunter, head of Toyota’s Calty Design Research studio in Newport Beach, Calif., said at the car’s debut.
Before the FT-1’s debut, auto enthusiast sites Jalopnik.com, Autoblog.com, MotorAuthority.com and Carscoops.com had speculated the concept car would be a restyled version of the Supra, which was pulled from Toyota’s U.S. lineup in the late 1990s.
Toyoda, grandson of the automaker’s founder, has espoused a passion for performance cars and driving in most speeches since becoming president in 2009. Toyota posts videos of its top executive in driving gear behind the wheel of race cars at Germany’s Nurburgring, and in Toyoda’s 2010 U.S. congressional testimony, during the company’s recall crisis, Toyoda told House members: “I love cars as much as anyone.”
The company’s U.S. sales rose 7.4 percent last year to 2.24 million units, with the Camry remaining the best-selling car for a 12th consecutive year. The car will keep the title again in 2014, with sales once more above 400,000, Carter said in an interview.
Lexus said it will show the RC F coupe on Jan. 14 in Detroit, with an engine that will make it the “most powerful V-8 performance car ever developed” by the brand.
Bringing back the Supra or adding a muscle car to the Toyota brand is more about generating buzz than big sales, said Ed Kim, industry analyst for AutoPacific Inc., an industry researcher in Tustin, Calif.
“The reason for any brand to have a sports car is to provide a halo,” Kim said. The FT-1 “shows where Toyota’s aspirations are; where Akio Toyoda wants to take the brand.”