You’ve got to admire Toyota. Having decided that the way to a more successful tomorrow is to start building cars people actually dream of owning – as opposed to merely choosing because they’re sensible – Toyota has backed it up by showing a model that perfectly embodies all the new values, and presenting a leader who says (and embodies) all the right things. Akio Toyoda, great grandson of the company's founder and sometime racing driver at the Nurburgring, ascended to the presidency of the biggest Japanese company in the summer, and made his first major public appearances last week at the Tokyo motor show. If it hadn’t been for him and his new car - the extraordinary FT-86 concept - the show might have been a pretty humdrum affair, given that it was almost completely ignored by all but Japanese car makers, and that most of the exhibits headed in the same worthy-but-dull 'green' direction. The place was positively rammed with plug-in hybrids and battery cars, but woefully short of the kind of stuff most of us really drive.
However, Akio’s new coupe, though rakish in design, was more believable than any other headline-gathering model. It was clearly quite close to production, and nobody tried to hide the fact. The best thing was its impressive styling, and clever-yet-practical mechanical layout. What’s the biggest problem with coupes and sports cars today? The new predestrian protection laws, I’d say; cars have to have a 7cm space between the tops of their engines and their bonnets, to provide deformable space in case a pedestrian’s head hits it in an accident. Because nearly all today’s cars have transverse front-drive layouts, cowl heights on nearly all new cars have had to rise and bonnets had to lengthen — exactly the things you don’t want in a compact sports coupe. Toyota’s ingenious solution? To borrow Subaru’s charismatic 2.0 litre flat-four engine. It sits very low in the chassis, avoiding the new packaging problems and giving the car a special character. They’ve also made the car rear-wheel drive, which is what people remember fondly about the EA-86 (better known to us as the Corolla GT), still a favourite with drifting specialists for its superb handling balance. Then give the car an attainable price, around £22k of today’s money. And neat, distinctive, sporty styling. That’s the car they unveiled in Tokyo with hardly any warning, and it received a rapturous reception. Then Akio Toyoda stood in front of it - and announced that more interesting cars were coming to all car categories. It was a great moment. Toyoda could just have mouthed a lot of hot-air aspirations or maybe shown a few sketches and got our attention. But instead he took the risk of showing a car so close to completion that if it hadn’t won approval, the company would have been in big trouble and his own reputation would have suffered. It’s the confidence that surrounds this new car’s conception that I admire most.
Can’t wait to see what else Akio and his men can do.