Toyota’s Gazoo line will find its way into U.S. products

Toyota President Akio Toyoda burns rubber in the parking lot in his Gazoo Racing-spec Toyota 86. Photo credit: HANS GREIMEL

TOKYO — The U.S. may not get Toyota’s new vehicle series, but it will get some of the line’s sporty spirit.

Toyota has unveiled a sports car series for Japan and says it will take the line international. Dubbed GR, for Gazoo Racing, the series went on sale here last week and will expand to Europe.

The idea: Offer a pulse-pumping twist on the typical Toyota.

In Japan, the series kicked off with GR versions of the Prius Prime plug-in hybrid and Yaris subcompact hatchback, along with select domestic models. The models get sporty tuning, rigid bodywork and performance trim such as aluminum pedals, big air intakes and small-diameter steering wheels.

Toyota’s new GR sports car series gets special performance trim such as large air intakes and aluminum pedals. Photo credit: TOYOTA

The new venture also plans to develop a dedicated sports car platform, executives say. And Toyota wants to inject that sporty DNA into future products for the U.S. and elsewhere.

But don’t expect the series to land stateside under the GR banner.

Part of the hang-up is that Toyota has an entrenched tuner line in the U.S. called Toyota Racing Development, or TRD. Executives see no need for new branding there.

Then there is the name itself. U.S. executives privately say they loathe the name Gazoo, which has no obvious Toyota tie-in. For some, the only image it conjures is the Great Gazoo, a green alien cartoon character from The Flintstones TV series in the 1960s.

Shigeki Tomoyama, president of Gazoo Racing Co., Toyota’s motorsports and sports car division, said the company has no plans to use the GR name in America. But he said the treatment seen in the GR cars will be applied to future TRD entries and even production cars in North America.

“We are taking the challenge of adopting new tastes created in this process to stock cars as much as possible,” Tomoyama said last week at the GR launch event here. “In its next phase, we will get a designated sports car platform and eventually — finally — we want to introduce a pure, genuine sports car, which can compete against top-class world competitors.”

At a deeper level, Gazoo Racing pilots a new way of work for the company.

Gazoo Racing was cleaved off as a separate in-house subcompany of Toyota Motor Corp. in April with a mandate to cultivate a startup mentality and make streamlined decisions. It is supposed to take risks, act fast and bolster the brand image by injecting more emotion.

With a compact hand-picked staff of just more than 200 people, it handles all stages of product development, from design and engineering to production planning.

A key task is devising profitable ways to manufacture small batches of specialty cars.

The move comes as Japan’s biggest automaker tries to cultivate a reputation for cars that are more emotional and aspirational, rather than simply reliable, utilitarian runabouts.

The new sports car line arrives ahead of an expected successor to the Toyota Supra, one of the brand’s most storied sports cars. It could debut as early as next month’s Tokyo Motor Show.

President Akio Toyoda, an accomplished race driver and the force behind Toyota’s quest for zest, attended the GR launch and beguiled attendees afterward by doing doughnuts and burning rubber in the parking lot behind the wheel of his black and silver Gazoo Racing-spec Toyota 86.

“We have to show to the world that Toyota can actually make cars that are interesting,” he said. “We want to satisfy customers for both mass produced cars and unique cars.”