Chairman reveals desire for model’s return as groundbreaking modular platform opens up new opportunities
A more diverse range of new Toyota and Lexus models, encompassing everything from small ‘mid-engined’ sports cars to vast crossovers, has been made possible by a remarkable new modular electric car architecture that brings with it a level of flexibility never before seen in the industry.
The first model to use the new architecture will be a low, sleek Lexus saloon, which is due in 2026 and was previewed by the recent LF-ZC concept car at the Japan Mobility Show in Tokyo.
Alongside it at the show were three other concept models, each illustrating just how versatile this as-yet-unnamed architecture is. Included was the Toyota FT-Se concept, a 4.4-metre-long sports car that previews a new ‘mid-engined’-style sports car in the mould of the MR2; an imposing 5.2-metre-long luxury flagship Lexus crossover concept called LF-ZL; and the Toyota FT-3e, a more conventional large SUV that sits a class above the existing Toyota RAV4.
Late in 2021, Toyota chairman and then CEO Akio Toyoda showed glimpses of 15 of the 30 EVs Toyota aims to have on sale by 2030 as part of its plan to sell 3.5 million EVs globally per year from then.
The unveiling of so many new cars at once – part of an 11-digit investment in EVs by Toyota – was in response to claims at the time that the firm had been slow off the mark in developing electric cars.
The four cars at the Tokyo motor show are part of that future 2030 line-up, as are others seen at the 2021 unveiling, including everything from small cars to pick-up trucks, and from coupés to large SUVs.
Yet details of the new architecture lay bare just how free Toyota’s hand is in creating models of different shapes and sizes, as it has done in the internal-combustion era, and how truly low sports cars – at 1220mm tall, the FT-Se is 75mm lower than a Porsche 718 Cayman – can be realised.
The new architecture is based on three modular sections: front, centre and rear. Each component (notably the e-axles and HVAC system) that then goes into the hardware of the car has been downsized as much as possible. The structure’s front and rear modules are mirrors of each other, with ‘gigacasting’ construction reducing 86 different steel component parts (that would be welded together now) down to one die-cast aluminium piece.
These house the e-axles and suspension and can be scaled up or down based on a car’s size. The centre module houses the battery, which is integrated into the floor.
The battery pack is new: a ‘Performance’ prismatic battery that doubles the potential range over Toyota’s current bZ4X battery pack for 20% less cost while also being considerably smaller. It is available in two sizes, one as low as 100mm, which helps unlock the potential for lower models, and it can be scaled up and down in size to fit wider- or longer-wheelbase vehicles.
The three modules are then bolted together, and serviceable crash structures are attached onto the modules in a way that minimises repair costs.
Breaking the architecture into these three modules – rather than having one fixed platform with ancillary components – “allows us to be more extreme” with the vehicle types that can be created, according to Shinya Ito, general manager of Lexus Electrified, who has been involved in the development of the new modules.
It also unlocks manufacturing benefits including reduced complexity, greater efficiency and enhanced productivity, ultimately shortening and simplifying the process. Such is the commonality, in theory even the most radically different cars on this architecture could be built on the same production line.
The starting point for any new model is the need to accommodate passengers and where they sit – for instance, low in a sports car or up high in an SUV – and the modules are sized and chosen around that.
Toyota’s R&D boss Hiroki Nakajima said it was the low height of the battery pack that means electric sports cars can ape familiar ‘ICE-style’ proportions.
“Battery height is key for a low Lexus saloon and a Toyota GR sports car,” he said.
“Then, how can we maximise the downsizing of each component? Battery development allows us to expand our output [of more types of cars], reduce their height and change the shape and size. Downsized technology can do shapes you have never seen. By minimising the e-axles and HVAC, you enhance the product.”
The platform hardware is then integrated with Toyota’s Arene software platform. In the case of performance cars, Arene would allow owners to download different performance packs for their cars, with examples given including the performance of the Lexus LFA and the steering feel of the Toyota GR86.
The firm’s ‘manual’ transmission for battery-electric vehicles, including a clutch, will become a staple offering of fun electric cars, said Nakajima, who added that such cars should “not just be high-torque, high-power, but the goal is how we can provide that fun-to-drive image”.
Toyota’s steer-by-wire system will also be offered in the new EVs. While the MR2 will return for the electric era – as will the Lexus LFA, which was also previewed as one of the 30 models arriving by 2030 – a return for the Celica has now also been mooted.
Chairman Toyoda, who no longer has executive responsibilities at Toyota but still retains huge influence over the company and its strategy, told Toyota’s internal news outlet Toyota Times that he would like to see a return for the Celica and he would let Toyota executives know of his wishes – although he noted they are free to disagree with him, and if they did agree: “I don’t know what name it will come out under.”
Given the GR86’s production life is limited, there would be room for a ‘front-engined’- style sports car model in Toyota’s future range, and the new EV architecture can accommodate rear-wheel drive as well as front- and all-wheel drive depending on the vehicle type.
As such, an electric return for the Celica as has been done with the MR2 becomes easy to realise. No Toyota executive would comment on the Celica – Nakajima smiled at the mention of it when pushed – but all agreed the platform “opened up lots of different possibilities”, as one put it.
Speaking more generally on electric sports cars, Lexus’s chief branding officer Simon Humphries said: “Lots of people are worried that the electric era produces [cars as a] commodity.
Akio said ‘no way’ and is pushing us to have no commodities.” In 2017, Toyoda famously issued a decree that, under his stewardship, Toyota would launch “no more boring cars”.
As a racing enthusiast, he was a driving force behind the formation and expansion of the Gazoo Racing performance division, which has launched the GR Supra, GR Yaris, GR Corolla and GR86 to critical acclaim in recent years.
Despite the push to electric cars, Toyota remains committed to the development of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and internal-combustion engines due to its size and scale as a global car maker in markets of different levels of maturity and readiness for electric cars. Indeed, even 3.5 million EV units would represent just 35-40% of Toyota’s projected sales by 2030.