Secrets Of The Toyobaru

By Peter Nunn May 17, 2011

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Subaru is riding high right now, with sales and profits turbocharged. Next year comes the icing on the cake, when the new Boxer-engined, rear-drive sports coupe (above) it's co-developing with Toyota hits the showrooms. This is the 2-liter sporty coupe gearheads have already gleefully dubbed ‘the Toyobaru’ for its unusual joint parentage. It's a program announced back in April 2008 (when Toyota increased its stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru's parent company, to 16.5 percent). It's a program that also opens up a whole raft of new opportunities for both companies.

To give an idea of what’s ahead, there’s already been a run of auto show concepts that have caught the eye. However, the guessing stops later this year when the real cars from both Toyota and Subaru unveil at December’s reborn Tokyo Motor Show.  Production (by Subaru) then starts in spring 2012, with first shipments to the U.S. set to start soon after. Americans saw Toyota’s latest take on the car at April’s New York Auto Show. This was the fierce-looking Scion FR-S, essentially a rebadged version of the FT-86 II that Toyota brought out at the Geneva Salon in March. At Geneva, Subaru also produced a glass concept model showing the sports car’s Boxer engine, architecture and suspension — the very bits it will be responsible for as the car takes shape. Now, this novel see-through Subaru study has had another airing at a special media workshop in Japan where key engineers responsible for the car were also on hand. 

In more ways than one, this eagerly anticipated ‘Toyobaru’ really does it differently. At a time when the auto business is buzzing with electric- and eco-car technology, this new model centers instead on the rather old-school concept of ‘fun to drive.’  Though Subaru has made all-wheel drive an integral part of its brand DNA, the sports car also comes very definitely with rear-wheel drive and sources familiar with the program say there are no plans for an AWD version, or turbo, either, as per Subaru’s iconic Impreza WRX STI.  And in a way, that’s just the point. The idea is to go down a different road than the STI, to create the kind of specialty coupe the Celica used to be, although Toyota actually talks more about reviving the spirit of the ’80s AE86 generation of Corolla coupe with the Scion FR-S Concept.

Still a major cult hero in Japan, that was a fun, livewire car that was born to drift. As we hear it, the Toyobaru is exactly that, reformatted for 2012. Under the joint development program, Toyota is handling product planning and design. Subaru is in charge of development and production. Both have their own takes on sales and marketing for the new coupe which, we hear, sits on an all-new platform (“not based on the Impreza”) and, in fact, the whole car will be all new from front to back.

There will effectively be one model for both companies, with yet-to-be-defined styling differences to set them apart. Because of all this uniqueness and the fact it will effectively run as an independent model, one manager privately likened it to “a Corvette,” although -fiberglass and a V8 shouldn’t immediately be expected.  It will, however, run with a new, high-rev development of Subaru’s latest horizontally opposed engine mated to Toyota’s D4-S injection system, thus marking yet another tie-up between the two auto giants.

As the program develops, Subaru will build the sports coupe out of the Gunma factory in Japan, which is running out its 660 cc minivehicle production. Contrary to the original 2008 plan, Subaru won’t build a new plant for the sports car, but will refurbish its outgoing 660 cc minicar site, which currently has an annual production run of 120,000-130,000 units per year. Neither Toyota nor Subaru is talking production volumes yet, but a new specialty sports coupe would be going some to hit those numbers -- leads to speculation that further developments are planned. A convertible, for instance, though sources in Japan also talk of a compact sedan to target the BMW 1-Series.

The driving force behind this compact rear-drive sports-car program (and the Lexus LF-A), is Toyota chief Akio Toyoda, an unashamed auto enthusiast who loves high-speed driving. Along with other Toyota engineers, he’s been wanting to do a new AE86 Corolla for years. Subaru, in turn, is immensely proud of its Boxer engine and the program at last gives it the chance to do a meaningful collaboration -- after previous ill-advised attempts via the Saab 9-2X (“the Saabaru”) and GM fell flat.

The car Toyota and Subaru are working on sounds fascinating, but road bumps could be ahead. The world could turn any number of ways over the next year and if gas prices continue to rise, a specialty coupe in that 2.0-liter class without a premium badge or strong eco-content could be a tough sell outside the enthusiast sector. There again, uniqueness will be a key. “There is no other car in the world like this,” said an insider, his eyes lighting up. And do you know what? He is absolutely right. It is without doubt Japan’s most eagerly awaited new car.

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ed124c says: 3:35 PM, 05.17.11

Another whole year before it comes out. Yes, a lot can happen between now and then. We can figuratively keep our fingers crossed. The one good thing about this is that two companies are involved, which should add momentum and purpose. There is alos a macho aspect-- neither would want to give up on it and lose face.


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