Change is brutal, unyielding, and inevitable. In little more than a decade, electric cars have gone from curiosities to inevitabilities — a rapid ascent to the new normalcy. While most everyday cars with indistinct cooking-grade engines would be quicker, quieter, less maintenance-intensive, and objectively better with electric power, the unexceptional nature of electric convenience and weight of current battery technology raises some questions about fun. Is the future of the mass-market performance car even enjoyable? At this year’s Japan Mobility Show, the world saw the Toyota FT-Se two-seat sports car concept, and it’s the sort of gesture that exudes a feeling of optimism — a signal the future of performance cars might not be so bad.
The Toyota FT-Se is worlds away from the memorable S-FR sports car concept Toyota unveiled back in 2015. Not only does it look far more aggressive than that little tennis ball, it’s bright orange and it’s got a wing and it has all the right mid-engined sports car proportions. It’s been 16 years since Toyota last made an MR2, and a new one feels well overdue. However, the FT-Se doesn’t feature a big part of the textbook sports car experience: An internal combustion engine.
Yes, this refinement of Toyota’s Sports EV concept is powered by electrons, meaning it would have a battery pack and at least one electric motor instead of a fizzy four-cylinder or sonorous six-cylinder engine. Likewise, it won’t have a manual transmission, although Toyota’s working on simulating the operation of a manual gearbox for the electric age. Will artificial interaction ever feel the same as the real thing? I have my doubts, but Toyota will proceed regardless.
Speaking of contentious points, the FT-Se uses a yoke instead of a traditional steering wheel, and all physical cabin controls have been replaced by smartphone-sized touchscreens. While concept car cabins are often flights of fancy, this isn’t the future we wanted. However, I’m still excited by the Toyota FT-Se, because it goes against the grain of what a mass-market performance EV is right now.
The status quo for electric performance cars is to build a heavy sedan or crossover, then just throw as much tire and damper underneath it as necessary to satisfy numeric targets. The end result is a whole batch of cars that are obscenely quick and objectively capable but as much fun as an IRS audit. Great performance cars pair objective capability with fabulous sensations at sensible speeds, making every moment of driving an occasion. As much as marketing departments like to quote zero-to-60 mph times and skidpad grip, it’s balance, body motions, the way good steering builds weight as tire loads climb and provides feedback over the road, the rock-solid pedal feel and progressive bite of a good braking system, and all the human sensations that matter in the real world.
This is why cars like the Toyota FT-Se Concept, the Mazda Iconic SP Concept, or on a more realistic level, the incoming electric Porsche 718 are so intriguing. With compact footprints and sports car ideology, they focus on the experience rather than the numbers, and experiences are what make cars so special. Considering this is an evolution of an existing concept — and given what we know about Toyota’s stance on sports cars — a future electric sports car doesn’t seem out of the question. After all, current Toyota President Koji Sato told Autocar that “Our Master Driver [Akio Toyoda] was also president of the company at the same time as he had a steering wheel in his hand for [Toyota performance car subsidiary] Gazoo. Now he is only chairman maybe he will have a lot more time to develop cars for them?” If this FT-Se is a taste of things to come, the future’s probably going to be alright.
(Photo credits: Toyota)
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