Toyota Sports Cars

Toyota’s first attempt at sports cars, the 2000GT, looked like it came straight from one of the fabled European automaker. See more pictures of Toyota Cars.

By the time Toyota got into the sports-car game, they’d been making cars for more than thirty years. In this article, you’ll learn about Toyota’s entry into the world of sports cars, from its surprising debut to the solid performers that followed.

The Toyota 2000GT burst onto the scene in 1965, stunning critics and enthusiasts alike with its impressive performance and beautiful styling. Many of its features took their cues from European -- rather than Japanese trends -- which gave the newcomer an air of refinement. After all, even if the 2000GT was new, the concepts it employed were time-tested classics.

Twenty years later, the Toyota MR2 became Toyota’s first car to utilize a mid-engine layout. Actual parts used in the “Mister Two” were all pulled from one previous Toyota model or another, resulting in a sort of kit-car philosophy. Despite this patchwork process, the combination and arrangement of components led to a fantastic machine.

In the pages that follow, you’ll learn more about Toyota’s sports cars, from specs and pictures to how they landed a role in the James Bond flick You Only Live Twice.

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Toyota 2000GT

The comely-but-expensive Toyota 2000GT presaged an era of fine Japanese sports cars.

It was as good a 2.0-liter sports car as any automaker could offer. Coming from a Japanese manufacturer with no sporting tradition, the Toyota 2000GT was simply astonishing.

Toyota had been building cars for 30 years, but they'd been mundane people-movers of high reliability, little sophistication, and no soul. A world-class Grand Touring automobile would do wonders for its image.

The solution started as a sports-car prototype built by Yamaha for Toyota's rival, Nissan. Heavily involved in the design was Count Albrecht Goertz, who had shaped the BMW 507. When Nissan turned down the prototype, Yamaha sold it to Toyota, which, after some slight changes, unveiled it at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show as the 2000GT. Sales began in 1967.

Outsized driving lights beneath awkward pop-up headlamps distinguished the nose, but the aluminum-bodied two-seat hatchback was otherwise a fresh blend of familiar elements. The steel backbone chassis and independent suspension were inspired by the Lotus Elan. Rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes (the first on a Japanese production car), and magnesium-alloy road wheels were de rigueur in Europe but unheard of in an Asian. Power came from a Yamaha-developed 2.0-liter dohc conversion of the 2.3-liter sohc inline-six from Toyota's big Crown sedan.

The interior had decent room for two American-sized adults, though just 4.8 cubic feet of luggage space. Equipment, however, was luxurious for a sports car of the day: full instrumentation in a rosewood dashboard, a modern heating/ventilating system, self-seeking AM radio, "rally" clock/stopwatch, telescopic steering wheel, and a comprehensive tool kit.

The 2000GT appeared in 1965 with independent suspension, four-wheel discs, and a gritty twincam 2.0-liter four. Just 337 were made.

Low production precluded volume sales at a reasonable price, but the car was the image-maker Toyota desired. Acceleration was very good for the available power, and overall behavior was superb. "When it comes to ride and handling, nobody in his right mind could need or want more in a road vehicle than the 2000GT has to offer," said Road & Track in June 1967. Prototypes did well in Japanese sports-car races, and Carroll Shelby's competition group developed three 2000GTs into 250-hp SCCA C-production winners. For good measure, a couple of convertibles were run off for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Overall, though, the 2000GT was just a bit ahead of its time: The world was not quite ready for a Japanese GT at Jaguar prices.

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Toyota MR2

With the MR2, Toyota proved it could rearrange off-the-shelf components into an “exotic” mid-engine mix and come up with a great little sports car.

With its snappy handling, gemlike gearbox, and enchanting engine, the Toyota MR2 didn't feel like an amalgam of off-the-shelf parts. But this corporate kit car was from Toyota, which drew on excellent components and knew how to use them.

MR2 means "Mid/Rear engine 2-seat." Japan's first mid-engine production automobile went on sale in the United States in 1985 as an early '86 model but was born in the late 1970s with Toyota looking for sports-car possibilities in existing hardware. When its popular Corolla sedan was reengineered for front-wheel drive, it had the building blocks. Corolla's transverse four-cylinder engine and transaxle were lifted and put midships in a unitized coupe hull; the same car's front strut suspension and disc brakes were used at both ends. All U.S.-market MR2s had the twincam version of the 1.6 liter first seen in the rear-drive Corolla GT-S coupe. Steering was rack-and-pinion and didn't need power assist, given the front/rear weight distribution of 44/56 percent.

Critics disliked the styling, but the MR2 was a model of efficient packaging and satisfied that vital sports-car criteria by being no larger or heavier than necessary. Its cabin was snug but surprisingly airy and loaded with practical standard features, such as tilt steering and power mirrors. Leather, air conditioning, and power windows were options.

Few modern cars made their drivers smile so much. The engine loved to rev -- it had to for best performance -- but was so smooth and willing, and the shifter so quick and precise. (Car and Driver in 1986 tabbed the MR2's gearbox and ergonomic layout as the world's best.) Noise levels were reasonable and the car was eminently tossable, with dreaded mid-engine over-steer surfacing only at racetrack cornering speeds. All that and Toyota reliability, no wonder the first MR2s sold at over sticker.

The first MR2 wasn’t really pretty, but it was plucky. Its twincam engine loved to rev, worked through a sublime gearbox, and teamed with wonderfully nimble independent suspension. Supercharged models were faster but not any more fun.

When demand cooled, Toyota tempted the fickle market with optional automatic transmission, removable T-tops, a spoiler package, and for 1988, a supercharged model that had 145 hp and did 0-60 mph in seven seconds. Low mass and low cost, high fun and high quality, cars like the original "Mr. Two" don't often surface, much less emerge hot to trot right from the parts bin.

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Toyota MR2 Turbo

Even with prices inflated by currency fluctuations, the MR2 Turbo was an unexpected taste of exotica.

An odd thing happened to the Toyota MR2 on its way to becoming a budget supercar. Oh, it had great performance and styling suitable for a Lamborghini, but gone was the sweet feet of the original. The second generation MR2 aspired to be more than a cheerful little sports car, and it somehow turned out less than the sum of its impressive parts.

Toyota laid plans for "Mr. Two" two during the bubbly 1980s, when the market for expensive -- and profitable -- sports cars seemed bright. Thus, the redesigned MR2 released for 1991 (there was no 1990 model) had more of everything. There was 3.2 inches more wheelbase for more cockpit space, 8.7 inches more body length for a roomier rear trunk, and curb weight increased more than 400 lbs. Its dohc four-cylinder engines also had more horsepower: 135 for the 2.2-liter base unit and 200 for the uplevel choice, now a turbocharged and intercooled 2.0. Torque increased 40 percent. ABS was a new option, and the rear tires were now wider than the fronts. The more luxurious interior featured a driver-side air bag.

It was the MR2 Turbo that best mimicked a supercar, with its sleek mid-engine design, beckoning 7,000-rpm redline, and sophisticated mechanical air. But the engineers had miscalculated. The new car was treacherous in fast, hard cornering. Sudden oversteer, present only at the very limit in the first generation MR2, now came more easily, especially to the powerful Turbo. The '93s got significant rear-suspension revisions, wider-still rear tires, and for good measure, larger, stronger brakes.

The MR2 Turbo lacked the playful personality of the original “Mr. Two,” and its tendency to surprise over-steer in a corner wasn’t cured until well into production.

Toyota could fix the handling but was powerless against the yen. Base prices in 1991 were a reasonable $14,898 for the standard model and $18,228 for the Turbo, but by '95 it had ballooned to $24,000 and near $30,000. This in a nervous economy and amid insurers hostile to two-seaters. U.S. sales that topped 14,000 in calendar '91 shriveled to 387 for 1995. There was no '96 model.

The second-generation MR2 had combined exotic-car credentials with Toyota reliability, but few mourned its passing. "Somehow a critical ingredient has been lost in the recipe," wrote Brock Yates in a Car and Driver review of the '93 model. ". . .[C]all it soul . . . For all its mechanical sophistication, the MR2 remains mysteriously tepid . . . Try as we might, our enthusiasm lags."

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Toyota Supra Turbo

The second-generation Toyota Supra was born of an optimistic time, when the demand for very fast, high-tech Japanese sports cars looked insatiable. Despite the market changing, the Supra soldiers on, and in Turbo form, matches some European exotics in performance, if not price or prestige. See more pictures of Toyota sports cars.

Toyota's new Supra bowed just as the market for high-buck Japanese sports cars collapsed. Sales dragged at 2,000-3,000 per year, making it almost as rare as some European exotics. Low volume wasn't all the Supra Turbo had in common with a Ferrari, though. It even performed like one.

Originally an upgraded Celica sporty coupe, the Toyota Supra became its own rear-drive model when Celica went front-wheel drive for 1986. Settled comfortably into the role of a sound 2+2 GT, that version lasted though 1992. For '93, Supra was reborn as a costlier, more powerful 2+2 coupe. Styling, done in Japan, was rounded and more aggressive, with nods to the Ferrari F40 in the grille opening and bodyside intakes (they did not duct to the brakes). It even had a big basket-handle spoiler, a $420 Turbo option said to provide 66 lbs of downforce at 90 mph.

Although still a sizable sports car, the new Supra was smaller than its predecessor, with 1.8 inches less wheelbase and 4.2 inches less body length. To save weight, Toyota rejected such items as dual exhaust tips and even specified hollow-fiber carpeting. Supra rode a shortened, modified Lexus SC300 platform and shared the luxury coupe's engine. Here it had 220 hp in base form and 320 in the Turbo, which used one turbocharger for low-rpm boost, kicked in a second above 4,500 rpm, and then ran both to make an impressive 106.8 hp per liter. The cabin was austere for the price, and the rear seats were mere parcel bins, but everything else was in place: dual air bags, traction control, and a removable aluminum roof panel.

Using two turbochargers in sequence, Supra’s twincam inline-six pumps 320 hp to wide rear wheels. The quick-shifting six-speed manual is preferred by sporting drivers over the four-speed automatic, but with either, the excellent suspension and resolute ABS disc brakes make for near-faultless control in most any maneuver.

A flick of the wrist shifted the Getrag six-speed, and the well-sorted suspension and magnificent ABS disc brakes kept the car composed even in the wildest maneuvers, with only a harsh bad-pavement ride dimming the picture. The Turbo begged comparison to the world's best. Car and Driver chose it over the Mazda RX-7, Nissan 300ZX Turbo, and Porsche 968. Road & Track in August '93 pit it against the $189,500 Ferrari 512TR and $99,000 Porsche 911 Turbo. The Toyota was a blink slower to 60 mph but gripper in corners, faster through the slalom, and stopped shorter from 60 mph.

"Suspend your preconceptions, forget the legends, erase the tallies of ancient race wins," said the editors, who judged the Turbo Supra an "exotic" in all but one vital intangible. Call it "the builder's courage to express his work uncompromisingly," said R&T, which found indecision in Supra's styling. But if launching -- and sustaining -- an expensive Japanese sports car in a hostile market isn't courage, then what is?

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