Why Won’t Toyota Embrace the Turbo Like Everyone Else?

Turbochargers | Precision Turbo Engine

Toyota’s illustrious turbo game from the 1980s and ’90s was one of the great eras of automotive history. This was a brand that made badass turbocharged automobiles for both American and Asian markets, and with classics like the Supra Turbo garnering big bucks on the auction block, nostalgia and proven power gains are making a strong argument for the Japanese giant to bring back boost.

Toyota’s luxury line, Lexus, has brought forth its sensational turbo 2.0-liter motor recently, starting with the NX 200t then bringing the boosted RC and IS models into the fold. Going with the L badge remains the only way someone can get turbocharged options from the automaker. This puts Toyota at a bit of a disadvantage, especially with companies like Ford putting EcoBoost engines in everything from economy-focused Focus to the F-150 Raptor. The competition has the upper hand in both affordable power and performance appeal, but Toyota has had to rely on naturally aspirated engines and hybrid technology.

Toyota FT-1 Concept
Toyota FT-1 Concept | Toyota

Even Honda has finally gotten in the turbo game with its award-winning 10th-generation Civic sporting a 1.5-liter motor that’s been massaged by a small but swiftly spooling snail, and a 300-horsepower Type-R model right behind it. Small, turbocharged motors have not just become a commodity that offers drivers additional grunt and highway fuel economy, but a necessity for any automaker that plans to keep up with the Joneses.

Subaru plans to continue to kick ass with its turbo game; GM has an excellent single and twin-turbo lineup for multiple nameplates, and Fiat-Chrysler has solid turbo options across its brands as well as the angry little Abarth line. Meanwhile, the Germans never really gave up on forced induction in the first place, and companies like Volvo and Jaguar round things out with Polestar powerplants and torque-filled turbo diesel options respectively. Everyone seems to have a forced induction “engine of the future” on the front burner, and with efficiency requirements and consumer demand for performance on the rise, the future of fuel injection looks like it will only spool skyward.

Lexus Super GT race car
Lexus Super GT race car | Toyota

But leading the way in the near future is none other than Nissan, which has long been lauded for its well engineered twin-turbo Skyline GT-R, and is looking to change the game all over again when it releases its continuously variable compression turbo four-cylinder engine. With the ability to control compression and a turbocharger on board to make the 2.0-liter four banger all the more eager, the days of needing to go diesel to get titanic torque curves and gas mileage are officially numbered.

But Toyota has decided to do away with both the Scion tC and the Matrix as well as the optional TRD supercharger upgrade, and it axed the blower option on the Tundra last year, thus leaving us with a long line of capable but unexciting engines. The rebadged Scion FR-S finally takes 86 form, but it misses out on a TRD turbo upgrade… again. What happened to the old slogan that proudly proclaimed “Moving Forward” and “Oh What a Feeling,” while turbocharged MR2 sports cars and Supras supplied the performance gumption to back it all up?

2016 IS200t F Sport
2016 IS200t F Sport | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

But all isn’t lost just yet. Lexus recently unveiled a “dramatic race car based on a modified version of the all-new LC 500,” which looks somewhat like a Gundam character, but more importantly, packs a heavily modified turbo engine out of the IS200t F Sport we drove last fall.

It may sound foolhardy, but Toyota may have just given itself the upper hand: The Lexus will be going toe-to-toe with Super GT race cars that have twice the number of cylinders, so all eyes are on the Lexus brand and its little forced-induction four-banger. If successful, this could become a fresh chapter for Toyota’s engine strategy.

Toyota Supra Turbo
Toyota Supra Turbo | Toyota

With testing of the race car slated for September of 2016, Toyota says it hopes to have the new coupe ready for its race debut in Japan’s Super GT series by next year, replacing the V8-powered Lexus RC F in the series. This alone stands to prove to the world that Toyota has one hell of a turbo game after all.

Both the LC 500 and its hybrid brethren, the LC 500h, have been designed as grand touring coupes, with the race car version taking it to the extreme in the aerodynamic, weight reduction, and race-spec powertrain departments. In the past turbocharged four-cylinder motors have done sensationally well in the race world, with 1,000-horsepower builds like Steph Papadakis’s turbo Scion tC motor forcing V8 fanatics to reconsider their naysaying.

Turbo Lexus LC 500
Lexus LC 500 race car | Toyota

But unfortunately, the 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine and its spooling turbocharger can’t be had even on Toyota’s sportiest vehicles, leaving car shoppers to settle for naturally aspirated V6 alternatives and efficient, but entirely unexciting four bangers. Toyota could stand to gain a lot of ground if it rolled out a series of twin-turbo V6 truck and SUV options to compete with companies like Ford. Since the boosted 2.0-liter in the Lexus line works so well, putting the smaller powerplant in everything from the Camry and Corolla S to the Tacoma and the Sienna seems like a no-brainer as well.

According to an official statement that we received from Ben Schlimme, Toyota Technical Center’s Executive Program Manager for Powertrain & Regulation and Advanced Planning & Research for powertrains, it’s a value based move. “Toyota’s global turbo charging deployment is focused to address each region’s specific requirements, taking into account customer preference, fuel consumption, and emissions regulations,” he says. “In the US, deployment is focused on our Lexus brand where performance is prioritized, paring the technology strengths, where our customers find best value.”

It could also be that long term turbo reliability concerns are another reason for the notoriously reliable automaker’s hesitation, further encouraging Schlimme and his superiors to not move until demand becomes so overwhelming that it forces their hand. In their defense, Toyota has also done a fantastic job of refreshing and overhauling its core lineup so that power gains are embellished by the use of hybrid electric technology, which may not be as romantic sounding or as powerful as a turbo, but still yields solid gains over a traditional drivetrain. Nevertheless, with emission standards and customer demand on the rise, it only makes sense for Toyota to take what is working in the Lexus line, and make it available in more affordable vehicles in the near future.

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