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Toyota taps Le Mans in bid to rival Tesla with hybrid sports car

The logo of Toyota Motor Corp is seen on a company's Corolla car in Caracas October 25, 2017. — Reuters pic
The logo of Toyota Motor Corp is seen on a company's Corolla car in Caracas October 25, 2017. — Reuters pic

TOKYO, Jan 12 — Toyota Motor Corp sees the gruelling conditions of the Le Mans 24-hour endurance race as the ideal testing ground in its quest to build electrified cars rivalling those of Tesla Inc.

Japan’s biggest automaker unveiled a prototype sports car today that’s born from hybrid technology developed at the FIA World Endurance Championship. The two-seat GR Super Sport is on display at the Tokyo Auto Salon, the nation’s annual aftermarket trade show, which runs through the weekend.

“An electric motor generates a tremendous amount of torque, while the high revs of an engine gives long acceleration,” Shigeki Tomoyama, a Toyota executive vice president and head of the GAZOO Racing in-house company responsible for sports car development, said after the unveiling of the new car. “By combining these two, there’s plenty of possibility to develop a new kind of fun-to-drive car that doesn’t currently exist.”

Legacy automakers such as Toyota are working to keep cars sporty as industry trends toward self-driving and ride-sharing threaten to turn vehicles into utilitarian people-movers and render their manufacturers as hardware assemblers. Toyota President Akio Toyoda, 61, expressed a desire last month to build a hybrid sports model based on the TS050 Le Mans racer as part of that push.

More urgent

For Toyota, the race to develop fun-to-drive electric cars has been made more urgent by its commitment to offer an electrified option for every vehicle in its lineup by 2025. Hybrid remains central to Toyota’s electrification strategy, making up 4.5 million of the 5.5 million hybrid, plug-in and fuel-cell vehicles it aims to sell annually by 2030. The automaker intends to further refine its hybrid technology for different applications, such as better acceleration for sports cars.

The GR Super Sport is the second hybrid sports car prototype Toyota has shown in recent months, following the GR HV Sports concept that made its debut at the Tokyo Motor Show in August. Based on the 86 — the solitary sports car in Toyota’s stable and currently available only with a boxer engine — the two-seat, rear-wheel-drive coupe and the GR Super Sport both house the same Toyota Hybrid System-Racing powertrain.

It will be no easy feat to build engaging electrified autos, Toyoda said at a briefing last month, even as he lauded Tesla’s original 2008 Roadster as successfully creating brand value for an electric vehicle.

Hybrid endurance racing, particularly the 24 hours of Le Mans, “represent the optimal proving ground for achieving the goal of making cars fun for the next 100 years,” Toyoda, himself an amateur race-car driver, said in a statement December 19.

“That is exactly why we will persistently engage in motorsport, without being swayed by the good and bad of economic times,” he said. — Bloomberg

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