Toyota has launched a new performance line in Japan. Called GR, it offers performance parts and complete cars, with six models offered at launch. Four more will follow and hit the roads of Japan by spring 2018. Toyota hopes to “gradually” bring the series outside of Japan, but whether that is good news or not depends on whether you think GR is a true performance line. But first, a brief history of GR.
Back in 1998, Toyota launched a new e-commerce site called Gazoo. The reason for this was that the internet was changing the way young people were buying cars in Japan. People who study such things within Toyota had noticed a dearth of young people coming into showrooms to drool over the latest models or the inventory on the used car lot.
However, it wasn’t that young people weren’t interested in cars anymore. It was because it was far more convenient to shop online. So Toyota launched Gazoo.com, a site where all of Toyota’s dealers across Japan could upload their inventories. The name came from a portmanteau of gazou, or “picture” in Japanese, and “zoo”, so “picture zoo.”
That was all fine and good, and quite a forward thinking step to take in the same year that Google.com launched, but Akio Toyoda thought it could be more than that. In 2005 the noted car guy, occasional racer, cars and coffee attendee, and great-grandson of Toyota’s founder had just been promoted to vice president. He wanted to turn Gazoo into a portal for the youths, not just to buy cars, but to get excited about them and build a lifestyle around them.
The following year Gazoo Racing was founded, headed by Toyota’s master driver Hiromu Naruse. Akio Toyoda himself raced under this team and Naruse’s tutelage, but he knew that having the heir of one of Japan’s most powerful families hoon about in fast cars and putting his own life at risk might be bad for PR. So Toyoda used an alias, Morizo, and bought a used Altezza to race with.
It wasn’t until long after Toyoda became president of the company in 2009 that he revealed Morizo’s identity like Bruce Wayne announcing he was Batman. He then fast-tracked cars like the Toyota 86 and Lexus LFA into production — and raced them too.
Soon Gazoo had become a full blown performance division within Toyota. Not only did they build race and rally machines, but also street-legal tuner variants of popular Toyotas. Its G’s sub-brand also created a series of dealer-installed body kits. In addition, it was also tasked with training Toyota personnel in motorsports. It was all getting a little confusing.
Now with the latest announcement of the new GR line, everything will be unified under one hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid are cars marked GRMN, which stands for Gazoo Racing Masters of the Nürburgring — a tribute to Gazoo co-founder Hiromu Naruse, who was nicknamed Master of the Nürburgring and was killed there testing the Lexus LFA. These are cars that have extreme drivetrain modifications like the Yaris GRMN.
Below that is the GR line, which does not have powertrain enhancements, but offers suspensions that are GRMN-esque and upgrades like big brake kits, in addition to everything in the level below. That level is GR Sport, which includes suspensions that are not as hard core, some body stiffening, and a bunch of cosmetic stuff like aero kits, more aggressive steering wheels and pedals, and sport gauges. Then there’s GR Parts, in which the GR accessories can be bought á la carte.
Finally, Toyota will launch a series of GR Garages across Japan that offer parts and service to customers and provide access to “driving experiences”. The stated goal of these garages is to “cultivate an enthusiastic car culture” and will replace the Area 86 stores that have thus far catered to ZN6 86 owners.
At the launch party at Toyota’s MegaWeb showroom in Tokyo, there was a newly restored Sports 800 dressed up in GR livery. It was an interesting piece, used to symbolize what GR stands for. “Everything started with this one,” Toyota said about its first commercial sports car, launched in 1965.
Toyota expanded on the car’s importance: The Sports 800 development manager, Tatsuo Hasegawa, was a former aircraft designer and applied his experience into the car. It was one of the first Japanese cars to undergo wind tunnel testing, as well as the first to adopt aluminum body panels for weight reduction. In 1966, at the first Suzuka 500km race, the Sports 800 not only won but swept 1-2 against rivals like the Honda S600, Prince Skyline GT, and Isuzu Bellett, as well as imports like the MG B, Lotus Elan, and Triumph TR4, because it never once had to pit for fuel. In the end, the tank was still 30 percent full.
Having said all that, the first batch of cars is not terribly exciting. The models are the Vitz (Yaris), Prius PHV (Prius Prime), Mark X, Harrier (Lexus RX), and the Noah and Voxy minivans. Joining them by year’s end will be the Aqua (Prius c), Prius α (Prius V), and 86. The bonkers Vitz GRMN will arrive in spring 2018. Basically, all the former G’s appearance package cars are now GR Sports (Toyota loosely used the story of the fuel-efficient Sports 800 to explain why so many Priuses are part of the GR launch). We understand the appearance packages are necessary to make a little dough on the side — even luxury marques like BMW, Lexus, Mercedes and Audi are all doing it — but that leaves much to be desired for the true enthusiast.
Of the initial models, the Toyota 86 and the Mark X (a RWD sedan the size of a Camry), and the rally-inspired Vitz GRMN are the only ones to write home about. Maybe the Voxy is kind of cool in a Japanese VIP van kind of way. Still, any effort to build a performance brand is laudable, I suppose. If they can truly capture the essence and spirit that put the Sports 800 at the finish line of the 1966 Suzuka 500, that’s a good thing. Let’s just hope to see more top-spec GRMN-modified cars down the line.
Images courtesy of Toyota.