TOYOTA’ BACK!

A reborn Supra. A Le Mans car for the road. An all-new Corolla packed with driver appeal. Japan’s sleeping giant has woken. Here’s why you should be excited.

WORDS TONY O'KANE

RISINGFUN RISINGFUN

After years of dominating the sales char ts via dull wor thiness, Corolla’s star is finally ascending

ONCE upon a time there was a Japanese car company that earned a loyal fan base by building appealing, accessible cars with the kind of spirit people didn’t normally associate with vehicles of their price or format. That brand was called Toyota.

Maybe you remember it? For a long time, ‘Fun To Drive’ was the tagline of its Japanese advertising. Cars such as Corolla sat at the affordable end of its model line-up yet still had verve engineered into them. We didn’t know how good we had it until it was gone.

Economic conservatism brought about years of moderated blandness. Showrooms leveraged a reputation built in the better times to pedal ageing, monotone products with a decreasing amount of merit.

But now, there’s something’s in the water again at Toyota City. The Big T is beginning to scale the foothills of a long overdue comeback, and the sparks of its TNGAbased revival are rekindling memories of what made it great in the past.

Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) is the platform that underpins Prius, C-HR, Camry and this 12th-generation Corolla, so far. Its modular design is allowing Toyota to revamp its once-splintered approach toward developing cars for different markets. Investment dollars are going further, and the holistic step-change for Australia’s most popular passenger car is a dramatic one.

Boldness is what this all-new Corolla brings, stemming directly from the rediscovered confidence at Toyota, based in no small part on the success of TNGA. Torsional stiffness improves by a massive 60 percent, the wheels have been pushed out toward the corners of the body, opening up cabin space, and independent rear suspension ticks a key ingredient off the list of driving experience desirables. This sophisticated platform also brings a lower centre of gravity, something the designers have reflected in its self-assured styling.

Proportionally, Corolla seems broader than before, especially on attractive 18s fitted to the range-topping ZR variant driven here. The body hunkers down over them, with the bulk of its visual mass sitting lower. Thinner pillars up top increase the surface area of glass, and neat details include the complex, two-piece shoulder lines that repel each other at the rear doors.

Combine intriguing sheet metal with distinctive LED strips and headlights that mimic Gene Simmons’ stage makeup, and Corolla now has road presence that’s in stark contrast to its predecessor. The old car’s pointy front appeared relatively modern, but the rest became increasingly boring the further back you looked.

The renovations inside are similarly interesting. No attempt has been made to emulate the homogenous minimalism of its European rivals. It’s unashamedly Japanese with numerous finishes, but all executed to a higher standard than before with more soft-touch surfaces capped off by real French seams rather than the fake, moulded stitching it used to have.

Gone too is the old dashboard, which was so slab-faced and intrusive that, sitting inside the car, it felt like somebody had already crashed it. And if there’s ever been a sign that Toyota has really changed – there is no separate digital clock. It’s just a shame the infotainment interface is yet to go through a similar metamorphosis.

Best of all are the sporty, microfibertrimmed seats, which provide a nicely contoured and widely adjustable base to build your ideal driving position around.

A choice of two four-cylinder drivetrains splits the Corolla range; 2.0-litre petrol, or 1.8-litre petrol/electric hybrid, the latter identifiable by exterior badging with a subtle blue glow.

Pricing for the 125kW/200Nm 2.0-litre variants starts at $22,870 for the Ascent Sport with a manual gearbox, or $24,370 with a CVT. Fancier SX and ZR variants with the 2.0 are CVT only, and cost $26,870 and $30,370 respectively.

On the electrified side, the hybrid drivetrain is available across all trim grades for the first time. They start at $25,870 for an Ascent Sport, and top out with the flagship ZR, tested here, at $31,870. The 1.8-litre combustion engine makes just 72kW and 142Nm, with the battery pack and electric motors kicking in up to 53kW and 163Nm, but peak combined output is a modest 90kW.

It’s effectively the same drivetrain as the current Prius, though its control systems have been tweaked for better responsiveness. Around town at low speed much of its trundling is done in near silence under electric power alone. Sensitive ears will pick-up a high-pitched electrical hum, but for the most part it is satisfyingly serene.

SOFTER DAMPERS ARE USED FOR BETTER BUMP ABSORPTION

Full EV mode is available below 60km/h for those with featherlight control of the throttle pedal. Prod it beyond about 30 percent and the combustion engine triggers, but the vibration-free transition to hybrid motivation is virtually impossible to perceive with anything other than your hearing.

That’s also a reflection on the hushed cabin, which keeps wind and tyre noise to a respectable minimum. The engine is the only thing to disturb the ambience when going for a gap in traffic or making a quick getaway. Performance is languid down low, but it peps up once past an initial pause for breath. The engine note loses some of its coarseness and the Jetsons whine fades a little as the complex e-CVT holds the drivetrain’s peak torque at almost 4000rpm.

With a maximum of 90kW this hybrid Corolla isn’t going to win many touge battles, but the TNGA platform counters with its inherent strength and rigidity meaning softer dampers can be used for better bump absorption without hefty dynamic compromise, and the ride is brilliant. Driven with reasonable intent, it’s easy to develop a flow and carry speed.

The steering is light and a little too steer-by-wire in its lack of feel, but the off-centre immediacy is spot on. Point the tiller at an apex and the front hooks, the rear pivots and the whole thing glides around. It just needs an engine to match.

Down by the shifter there’s a button for ‘PWR’ mode, which shortens the throttle travel and feeds in more electrical assistance, but does nothing for gearbox performance. This hybrid Corolla doesn’t really cater for an overly spirited pilot as it omits artificial steps in its transmission calibration and foregoes paddle shifters.

A little more manual control would be welcome, because the chassis is there to be exploited.

It’s brilliant, this TNGA platform, and with the added grunt of 2.0-litre variants, and especially with a manual ’box, Corolla should have the dynamic range to make existing warm hatches raise an eyebrow. As it is I had to remind myself that this isn’t trying to be one, but what a good one it could make – Gazoo, if you’re listening…

Of course, the real strength of the hybrid is its fuel economy, which didn’t deviate from the mid-5L/100km zone according to the dash display, even under the stress of my lead foot. Claimed combined efficiency is 4.2L/100km. Theoretically, this car could go 1000km on a single 43-litre tank of unleaded.

Toyota’s crusade toward driver enthusiasm has been slowly building momentum with the roll-out of currentgen vehicles, and Corolla looks like the strongest string yet in its TNGA bow. It adds to the optimism, and even excitement about the future of one of the world’s biggest automakers. And when is the last time a Corolla did that?

Model Toyota Corolla ZR hybrid

Engine 1798cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v + motor

Max combined power 90kW @ 5200rpm

Max combined torque 180Nm @ 3600rpm (est.) Transmission e-CVT

L/W/H 4375/1790/1435mm

Wheelbase 2640mm

Weight 1400kg

0-100km/h 11.0sec (claimed) Economy 4.2L/100km

Price $31,870

On sale Now

WITHOUT HEFTY DYNAMIC COMPROMISE, AND THE RIDE IS BRILLIANT

Bare necessities

In all the fuss of making a car that’s fun again, Toyota has still managed to remember most of the basic stuff. Every variant gets a suite of active safety features including radar cruise, AEB with pedestrian and bike detection, and lane-keep assist. Standard kit in the ZR includes heated front seats and wireless charging. There’s just one USB port, though it is of the stronger 2.1A variety. Rear seat room is perfect for kids and adequate for teenagers and adults, who get a middle armrest and vents, but miss out on door pockets.

NEW BLOOD!

Toyota’s all-new, fifth-generation Supra will be the first offering from Toyota’s new high-per formance division Gazoo Racing when it arrives in Australia in mid-2019. Here’s what we learned from its pre-production debut at Goodwood

FRESH from winning the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota is poised to get mojo back in a big way.

The drift-happy 86 (and Wheels COTY) from 2012 might have proved the Japanese company still has spirit, but the flow on since has been slow.

That’s set to change, with the Toyota Supra poised to create a perfect storm when it arrives in Oz next year as a relatively affordable, high-performance coupe for the masses, and the first offering from a new hi-po division dubbed Gazoo Racing.

The Supra’s debut at July’s Goodwood Festival of Speed gave the world its first taste of metal in motion as a camouflaged pre-production version took to the hillclimb.

An eight-tenths run didn’t reveal a great deal about its performance, but the Supra’s appearance did shake out some tasty revelations, providing our best picture yet of the road car we’ll first sample in September at the international launch.

From la Sarthe to a street near you

THE TOYOTA Gazoo Racing Super Sport concept first seen at January’s Tokyo Auto Salon is set to spawn a road car, as well as an entry for a new hypercar-based class at Le Mans in 2020.

The wild-looking GR Super Sport, which is based on the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans-winning LMP1 proto TS050 Hybrid, shares the racer’s carbonfibre construction, midmounted 2.4-litre twin-turbo petrol V6 hybrid powertrain and all-wheel drive.

Toyota announced its intention to develop the concept into a road car at Le Mans using “mostly the same main parts” but detuned very slightly from the WEC version’s 735kW to 720kW to fall within the provisional regulations for the class, for which the Aston Martin Valkyrie and McLaren Senna are also eligible.

Toyota Gazoo Racing says its goal is “making ever-better cars through participation in motorsport.” And putting a Le Mans car on the road ... that’s taking it to the extreme.

The big news is that a turbo four will be offered alongside the turbo in-line six, bringing the Supra full circle to its beginnings as a Celica derivative.

Speaking with Road & Track at Goodwood, Supra program chief Tetsuya Tada said that the entry-level turbo four-cylinder Supra will have “much better weight distribution”, yet he also confirmed that the six-cylinder achieves the targeted 50:50 balance.

Hinting at the reverence in which the MkIV Supra and its 2JZ-GTE engine are still held, Tadasan suggested enthusiasts planning an engine swap should “buy the four-cylinder. It will be cheaper.”

Seemingly in reference to the six-cylinder’s circa500Nm torque output, Tada said “I can’t disclose specific figures, but the output of this engine is on a par with that which we have with the F-Series from Lexus (351kW/530Nm).

“But you can imagine from seeing it that the car is light and compact – its wheelbase is even shorter than the 86’s. It’s around 200-300kg lighter than the F-Series,” he said, putting the Supra between 1480 and 1580kg.

“The centre of gravity is lower than the 86’s,” Tada said, “and body rigidity is twice that of the 86.”

Tada also described the Supra as “more serious” than the 86 and says drivers will be able to feel that he benchmarked Porsche’s Cayman.

A leaked document from Germany’s ZF points to an entry-level Supra with a turbo four-cylinder. The document names development partner BMW’s turbo 1998cc B48B20 as the engine, and notes an output of 195kW. Expect torque to be around 355Nm.

It also confirmed the Supra’s auto-only status (initially, at least) noting the eight-speed torque converter ZF-8HP51HIS as the transmission.

The BMW B58B30 3.0-litre single-turbo in-line six is said to produce 250kW in the Supra, also backed by the 8HP eight-speed, as it is in the BMW 240i.

The ZF doc also points to a 280kW version of the Z4.

In the metal, Wheels’ Ben Oliver described the Supra as compact, but with a properly muscular stance. The cab-rearward silhouette hints at the MkIV Supra, as does the curve of the rear spoiler, yet this will certainly be the first Toyota to carry BMW’s famous Hoffmeister kink.

It’s been a long and tantalising re-emergence for the Japanese performance coupe icon last seen in hard-hitting twin-turbo JZA80 form in 2002, and last sold in Australia in MK3 form a decade earlier.

And when the Supra officially hits our shores again after more than 25 years it will not only mark the rebirth of an icon, but it will herald Gazoo Racing as Toyota Australia’s new performance arm.

“It’ll be our equivalent of HSV,” Toyota revealed to Wheels. From 2020 there will be more and more Gazoo models. The second one is likely to be at the other end of the scale to Supra. One with more volume, “a popular car that has been tweaked and boosted up,” which is likely in reference to the supercharged GRMN Yaris.

With an all-new high-preformance division and a fifth-gen Supra packing muscular power and torque, perfect chassis balance and handling honed on the Nurburgring, Toyota, shockingly, is shaping up as one of the most exciting brands of 2019.

SUPRA MAN

The senior Toyota engineer once k nown as Mr 86 doesn’t wear his underpants outside his trousers, but he does seem to have certain super powers when it comes t o building a great spor t s car. Meet Tetsuya Tada, the hero behind the new Supra

WORDS TONY O'KANE

THERE was a time in the golden era of Japanese carmaking, between the mid-1980s and late-1990s, when Toyota showrooms were thick with tasty Celicas, MR2s, Supras and Chasers sat alongside supercharged Comforts, and forced induction was everywhere.

It was a good time to be a Toyota fan. However, once the Japanese went off the boil in the mid-1990s Toyota’s will to keep building evaporated with it. And so begun Toyota’s ‘whitegoods era’.

It was a around this time that Tetsuya Tada, the man we best know as the engineer of the Toyota 86, cut his teeth as a vehicle project lead. automotive architect responsible for Toyota’s most engaging and car of this century, he’s a person worth knowing, and his latest the reincarnation of the mighty Supra – has the potential to new level of enthusiasm for the Big T – and put an end to the whitegoods reputation. But Tada wasn’t always interested in making driftable Toyotas. In his formative years, he wasn’t even interested making cars at all.

“It was a rocker,” he says. “I was in a rock band at the end of high school; studying electronics because I liked electric guitars. I actually to work for Yamaha, making instruments.”

But a gift from his parents of a Toyota Publica rekindled a love of cars first stoked by his rally-driving father, and Tada joined Toyota graduate software engineer instead. ABS and traction control were and butter, and after stints in Japan’s frosty northern island Hokkaido and at Toyota’s sprawling Higashi Fuji research facility, he spent years in Europe validating road cars and race cars.

However Tada’s early years as a chief engineer were decidedly less sexy might imagine.

“At the time, Toyota was trying to get the number-one sales spot in the and was walking away from making ‘inefficient’ sports cars that give us the number of sales,” says Tada. “We shifted to more [profitable] cars.”

From Tada’s point of view dull cars might have been making big money for Toyota at a time when the Japanese economy was contracting, but grocery-getters held little appeal to him. Senior management had different ideas, and in the mid-1990s Tada was lured to the world of product planning by Isao Tsuzuki – the chief engineer of the JZA80 Supra. Upon learning that the first car he would oversee would be a two-box MPV, his displeasure earned him a reprimand.

“As soon as I moved to that planning department, I asked Tsuzuki-san: ‘what car am I making?’ He said I’d be working on the Raum. It means ‘Room’ in German, but it’s a small car sold only in Japan, for carrying kids or elderly people. I was asked to do the plan for that car; I was really disappointed – it wasn’t a sports car! I complained to Tsuzuki-san, and he yelled at me. I was scolded by him: ‘Raum, Supra, have the same philosophy. If you don’t understand that, you’ll never make a sports car’. It took me more than 10 years until I understood what he meant.

“At that time I was in charge of minivans and of course the number of sales were going upwards and upwards, and the prospect of Toyota being ‘Number One’ was coming close. People were saying, ‘wow, Toyota is going really well’, however journalists would always say at the end of interviews: ‘Toyota’s cars are easy to use, they don’t break and are good value … but they’re not fun, they’re not interesting.’”

As his senpai, or mentor, Isao Tsuzuki taught Tada that building good cars was about much more than sharp handling or big power. Even boring cars would benefit from the same design philosophy that had made cars like Tsuzuki’s fourth-generation Supra fun.

“What he said about making sports cars is that it’s the same fundamentally as the Raum, or any car for that matter. Whatever the category, you have to think about the drivers, or the people who will be sitting in the seats.”

There was another harsh truth: sports cars couldn’t be loss-leaders in the world of Toyota. Every product had to pay its own way.

TADA’S PORTFOLIO

Accusations that Toyota spent too long building boring cars hit close to home for Tetsuya Tada – after all, he spent much of his career creating them. As a chief engineer he spent over a decade developing a bevy of largely soulless boxes for Toyota to sell to the masses, until being mercifully relieved of that task in 2007 to oversee the creation of the 86.

“Sports car development is about how you are going to develop the business case. Toyota isn’t a non-profit organisation – we don’t really make a lot of profit [making sports cars], but you really need to have at least some. With sports cars you can’t really sell a lot of them, and you use a lot of specific parts to get the performance. It’s a risky business, [which is why] a lot of board members don’t want to be involved in the sports car category.”

Tada’s experience in building compact vans for the budgetconscious proved instrumental to getting the 86 project across the line at the right price. Maximising parts-sharing and designing components that were cheap to produce were critical to keeping costs down.

“I learned that from making small cars. It was really useful, you have to have that kind of accumulated experience, otherwise you won’t be able to make production sports cars.”

Another crucial factor was Subaru’s role in the joint venture as the provider of the 86’s engine and platform. It comes as no surprise that Tada is teaming up with another manufacturer on his newest sports car project to help spread costs – the Supra will share its architecture and powertrains with BMW’s next-gen Z4.

But to dismiss it as a reskinned BMW is foolish. Tada proved with the 86 that an unconventional engineering approach can result in a car with vast driver appeal – even if said car is built largely on top of recycled suspension tech and borrowed engines. He remains fiercely proud of his decision to equip the 86 with low-friction tyres from the Prius for that reason.

He says to expect similar driver rewards with the new, fifthgeneration ‘A90’ Supra.

“You’ll really need to drive it. It’s hard to express in words, but I’d like everyone to hold the steering wheel as soon as possible.

On a circuit, or on the autobahn at over 200km/h, you’ll be able to enjoy it. Just drive it a few hundred kilometres and you’ll think, ‘Oh! It’s different!’ compared to conventional cars.”

Sadly Isao Tsuzuki, as the key influence on the man now responsible for injecting some much-needed joy into Japan’s most sober brand, won’t be able to critique the follow-up to his much-missed sports car and the product of his former understudy.

“Sports car making is very different from production cars, so I really wanted some advice from my senpai Tsuzuki-san. I went to see him, actually when I planned Hachiroku,” Tada says, using the Japanese name for his beloved 86.

“But before the launch of the Hachiroku, he died in an accident. If he was alive today he would be the first one I’d report to, and I’m sure he’d be very happy to see the Supra is continuing.”