Here it is: the Toyota FT-1 (aka "Mirai") concept. The car that could resurrect Toyota’s respect in the automotive world.
Early speculation is that yes, this could be a new Supra. This isn’t the first time that’s been said in recent years; following concepts and spy shots of the Toyobaru cousins (FRS and BRZ), the automotive press concluded that Toyota’s variant might be the reincarnation of the Supra. That, of course, didn’t turn out to be the case. Though the FRS and BRZ are doing quite well in the entry-level sports car market.
The concept’s original name, “Mirai,” is fitting: Mirai means future, so this could be Toyota’s flagship sports car for the future, like the Supra was in the 1990s, at least in the U.S. Production of the MKIV Supra (the last generation) officially ended in 2002, but Toyota halted exports to the U.S. before that.
Here’s why all of this is important: Cars like the Supra don’t drive the majority of a company’s profits, but they push something more valuable: perception. Toyota will never make as much money on a Supra successor as they will on the Corolla; the Corolla is a mass-market car. All kinds of people purchase Corollas, but there’s little about economy cars that endears buyers to brands. A sports car, especially one as legendary as the Supra, makes a car company cool. Even though the flagship cars are out of the financial reach of most buyers, that doesn’t stop them from wanting it -- or at least something else the brand offers.
Similarly, everybody wanted a Corvette, but they couldn’t afford it. So they bought a Cavalier instead.
Toyota was especially good at this strategy in the '90s. The Supra sat at the top of the range as the rear-wheel drive power car, costing around $35K at the time (that’s around $55K these days) and sparking the desire of teenage boys everywhere. That wasn’t a feasible amount for most buyers, but Toyota had established in consumers’ minds that the brand was cool -- and the cars were famously reliable. Less affluent buyers could instead opt for the Celica, a front-wheel drive sport compact that performed well, but nowhere near the Supra’s level. It cost what would be about $25K today.
Toyota also sold the MR2, a mid-engine sports coupe that embarrassed the Pontiac Fiero and even few Ferraris of the time. The MR2, sandwiched between the Celica and Supra markets, appealed to enthusiasts who wanted something a bit different and it was regarded as a very cool vehicle, with looks reminiscent of a Ferrari 355.
Those cars established Toyota as an appealing brand, and helped sell larger market cars like the Corolla and the Camry. Couple that with the outstanding reliability that most Toyota cars offered, and the company had an extremely loyal customer base for almost a decade following the Supra’s U.S. disappearance.
The brand's cool image faded in the following years, however. The MR2 bordered on obscurity in its third generation, and the Celica became nothing more than a two-door Corolla. Now Toyotas were for your dad, not for you (the cool teenager).
But then, something cool happened again. Scion was born to give Toyota a new name to sell young, enthusiast buyers on. By and large, that hasn’t worked -- until the FRS was introduced in 2012. That’s invigorated the Scion brand, and given Toyota a bit of respect in the automotive world. It hasn’t been enough to revamp the public perception, but that’s because the FRS isn’t a flagship sports car. It’s a $25K car for the entry-level gearhead. It’s not strong enough to lead a brand when the rest of the company’s offerings don’t follow the same “less is more” mantra.
You know what is strong enough? A Supra. If Toyota’s last few years are any indication, though, the Mirai concept could very well wind up with a Scion badge.