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With new brand, Toyota aims to make its sports cars exciting again

Japanese automaker bent on wresting spotlight back from Tesla

President Akio Toyoda, right, and senior managing officer Shigeki Tomoyama introduced the GR series.

TOKYO -- Toyota Motor has launched a sports car brand boasting an auto-racing heritage, hoping to appeal to younger demographics generally lacking interest in cars.

The new GR series brings sporty editions of multiple existing Toyota models under a single umbrella. Top-of-the-line entries get the GRMN suffix, midrange offerings carry the unadorned GR label, and entry-level products receive the GR Sport designation.

The seven models released in Japan on Tuesday include the Prius PHV GR Sport plug-in hybrid and the Vitz GR, a sporty version of the subcompact sold abroad as the Yaris. Plans are to add four more models by next spring and sell about 2,000 units a month in the home market.

"We hope to show once again that we can make interesting cars as Toyota marks its 80-year history," President Akio Toyoda told a news conference.

The GR line will cover around a fifth of models now offering sporty versions. It will target annual brand sales of 50,000 vehicles in half a decade. Toyota plans to open 39 dedicated GR Garage dealerships by fiscal year-end.

Souping it up

Toyota is working to make over its brand image in a shifting competitive landscape. While the top Japanese automaker has established a solid reputation in quality and environmental friendliness, the brand image itself is not that strong when it comes to driving performance.

Meanwhile, Tesla has successfully cultivated a cutting-edge image. Its first mass-market electric car, the Model 3, has received orders for roughly 500,000 units.

Rolling out sporty versions of existing vehicles, Toyota had struggled to push a consistent brand strategy because planning, development and other operations were dispersed among multiple departments.

Electrified autos are gaining traction worldwide but are said to pose a challenge to manufacturers in terms of product differentiation. And if car sharing continues to flourish, consumers may further lose interest in owning their own rides.

In this environment, Hitoshi Kaise of European consultancy Roland Berger says that where automakers train their focus in competition is key. Many carmakers are thus sharpening their focus on sports car branding strategies.

On track

Nissan Motor plans by around 2022 to more than double the nameplates of vehicles wearing the Nismo label, consisting of race-car-style variants of mass-market offerings.

And at German luxury car maker Daimler, annual sales of the Mercedes-AMG performance brand have reached around 100,000 units.

Toyota has been stepping on the gas in motor sports to win over new fans, returning in 2017 to the World Rally Championship for the first time in 18 years.

To efficiently apply motor sports know-how to mass production operations, Toyota upgraded its motor sports department to an in-house company this past spring to consolidate such operations as product planning, design, development and preparations for production. It is considering rolling out models built on dedicated platforms as well.

At a little over 200 people, the in-house company is smaller than any other at Toyota. It will work to shorten development lead times and accumulate experience that could aid mass production operations.

Toyota aims to make a profit from the motor sports operations and continue them indefinitely, according to Shigeki Tomoyama, a senior managing officer.


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