Toyota Motor Corp. (7203) wants to get back in the sports-car game.
The world’s largest automaker, which under Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda is seeking to add performance-focused models to its mass-market brand has said it will debut a concept car at its scheduled press conference on Jan. 13 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
That vehicle could be a new generation of the rear-wheel-drive Supra coupe Toyota dropped in the late 1990s, according to sites such as Jalopnik.com, Autoblog.com, MotorAuthority.com and Carscoops.com. Whatever Toyota shows, the concept won’t be called a Supra, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, who declined to elaborate.
While the Supra, with a six-cylinder, 3-liter turbo engine, never sold in large numbers, it has kept a loyal following among sport compact car devotees 15 years after being discontinued in the U.S., said Scott Oldham, editor-in-chief for Edmunds.com.
“This was an import performance model that went to an elite place,” Oldham said by phone Jan. 9 while driving in a Chevrolet Corvette to Detroit from Edmunds.com’s Santa Monica, California, headquarters. “This was a car that was really made by and for the kind of guys in ‘The Fast and the Furious’” films, he said.
‘I Love Cars’
Craig Taguchi, a company spokesman, declined to comment on those reports and provided no details on the concept car planned for Detroit.
Toyoda, grandson of the founder of the world’s largest automaker, 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.”
Toyota’s U.S. rebound since 2012, after four consecutive annual sales declines, was driven by models synonymous with mass-market tastes: Camry sedans, Corolla compacts and RAV4 small crossovers.
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. While Toyota City, Japan-based 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.
Lexus said it will show the RC F coupe on Jan. 14 in Detroit, equipped with an eight-cylinder 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, Joseph Phillippi, principal of consulting firm AutoTrends Inc. in Andover, New Jersey, said in a telephone interview.
“Every manufacturer needs a halo car or two to generate more showroom traffic,” Phillippi said. “The lack of a car like that hasn’t hurt their profitability or reputation for quality, reliability and durability. But there’s also no pizazz, and you need some of that.”
Performance cars can help draw more people to visit dealerships, even if they drive away in more restrained Avalon sedans or Highlander SUVs, Phillippi said.
The appeal of the 1990s-era Supra is an engine that can be tuned “without much difficulty” to produce as much as 1,000 horsepower, Oldham said. In 2001’s “The Fast and Furious,” star Paul Walker -- who died Nov. 30 in Valencia, California, car crash -- wins a street race with a Ferrari in a modified Supra driven by his character.
While Toyota won’t confirm whether the Supra is coming back, Kazuo Ohara, president of the company’s U.S. sales unit, has said it’s possible.
“We have several options and a kind of Supra successor is one of the options we have,” Ohara said in a Bloomberg TV interview in August. “At this point in time, I can’t confirm, but in the future we can give you better news.”
Toyota’s American depositary receipts rose 0.4 percent to $120.81 yesterday in New York. They gained 25 percent in the past 12 months through yesterday.
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