Toyota's suddenly feeling sporty with new FT-1

The new Toyota FT-1 Concept is revealed at the press preview of the 2014 North American International Auto Show on Monday in Detroit.
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Forget the fuel economy numbers and the environmentally friendly products it normally talks about. When Toyota rolled into town for this year's North American International Auto Show it had muscle on its corporate mind.

Toyota delivered one of the big surprises to come from this year's Detroit Auto Show as it revealed the new FT-1 sports car concept, which a senior executive described as "emblematic" of the more "passionate" direction the maker will take with its styling going forward.

While many of the makers launching new products at this year's Detroit Auto Show gave reporters a sneak peek at what they were planning, the Japanese giant maintained a strict curtain of silence which led to even more speculation about what might be in store. Many observers were expecting to see the return of the once-popular Toyota Supra.

They were at least aiming in the right direction. Admitting the maker has traditionally "chosen not to take too much risk" with products that critics have often dubbed bland appliances, advanced design director Kevin Hunter said Toyota is now taking a new approach to styling—encouraged by CEO Akio Toyoda.

Proclaiming the FT-1 concept has a "5-alarm visual impact," Hunter, the head of Toyota's California-based Calty studio, said it is "the symbol of Toyota's design future." But that left open the question of whether the show car might also have a place in Toyota's future product lineup.

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The FT-1 picks up some of the heritage cues of past Toyota sports cars, including the old Supra, but it is far from a retro design. The working mantra was to use "functional sculpting," explained Alex Shen, the studio chief at Calty who oversaw the development of the concept vehicle.

"We wanted it to look like it was sculpted by the wind," he explained, adding that the FT-1's curves had to have a functional purpose, such as improve engine breathing and cooling or enhancing aerodynamics and boosting high-speed downforce.

To that effect, the bright red prototype incorporated a deployable rear wing that would pop up at higher speeds to help maximize road grip.

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The show car also borrowed a trick from some of Toyota's more exotic competitors, such as Ferrari, by mounting the FT-1's engine beneath a transparent panel in the hood.

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Asked what engine it was fitted with, Toyota officials were vague, however, a company spokesman later explaining that the FT-1 concept was not a working "runner." But the concept was to outfit it with a conventional internal combustion engine, and not one of the hybrid powertrains the Japanese maker has become known for—clearly in a bid to show it can deliver some traditional, classic automotive muscle.

But whether that would be a big V-8—perhaps like the 400 horsepower engine set to debut in the new RC-F from Toyota's Lexus division Tuesday—or a more high-tech, downsized gas engine remains to be seen.

For the moment, it doesn't matter, as Toyota officials described the FT-1 as a design exercise with no specific production plans—though Calty design chief Hunter did say potential production opportunities were considered during the show car's development.

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And, indeed, Toyota is planning to beef up its sports car portfolio. It recently launched a small model developed as part of a joint venture with Subaru that is sold in the U.S. as the Scion FR-S. But Toyota also confirmed a few weeks ago that it will join in a partnership with Germany's BMW to develop two additional sports cars. Whether the FT-1 might be part of those plans remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain, Hunter promised, the sort of emotionally driven design the concept vehicle delivers will be back. The name, he revealed, stands for "Future Toyota," with "the 1 standing for the ultimate."

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at