Before I came to Ireland, some four decades ago, Toyota cars weren’t much on my radar. They never had the massive market share in Britain that they have here.
I often wondered if that was a hangover from the war and dislike - or rather suspicion – of all things Japanese during the two or three decades after 1945. Of course all that has changed, but maybe the damage was done.
Over here it was so different. Tim, with the Toyota franchise, and his brother Denis, with a chain of garages, took the market by storm. Clever marketing, with offers like radios in every car, saw them carve out a massive slice of the market which was reinforced by slogans claiming that they were the “best built cars in the world” and now “cars built for a better world”.
Of course that wasn’t necessarily true, but once said enough, it got into the subconscious – so cars like the Starlet, Corolla, Carina and Camry became staples in the national car park. And when the company’s luxury brand Lexus arrived relatively recently, it showed off some superbly engineered cars.
Strangely, while I had not been introduced to actual Toyotas before I arrived here, the brand was in my mind as John Updike, one of my favourite authors, had his most famous character Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom eventually owning a Toyota dealership in a fictional Pennsylvania town and making a massive success of it. However the series, which began in 1960 with Rabbit, Run! (of course, banned in Ireland!), ended in 1990 with Rabbit at Rest, with Harry’s son coked out of his head, running the business into the ground.
One character in the books speaks for owners over the world: “Toyota, let’s face it, has about the styling imagination of a gerbil.”
But that was never what people bought the cars for; value, reliability and that bit of added-on comfort were more important. Even now and despite some lovely sporty models over the years the physical attractiveness of the marque still won’t be the top reason to buy. But what has worked for the marque in recent years is its concentration on hybrid cars.
Of course the Prius became a global top-seller and the poster car of the green movement in the USA. But right now, across the range (including the recently relaunched Camry), Toyota is going self-charging hybrid, with 92pc of its car range next year likely to be so. It means that, from 2020, the best-selling Corolla – already way-out front as the top-seller in Ireland this year – will be totally hybrid, alongside the slightly funky looking C-HR.
Steve Tormey, the Toyota Ireland CEO, reckons that if all other motoring manufacturers offered a full range of hybrids, Ireland’s environmental outlook would immediately be a “lot rosier than it currently looks”. He claims that the self-charging hybrids, which are exclusively automatic, have many advantages including excellent fuel efficiency, low NOX, and drive in zero-emissions mode more than 60pc of the time, “making them the ideal next step towards electrification for environmentally and cost-conscious drivers”.
These company changes follow on from the success already seen with the RAV4 and Camry, which are exclusively available in hybrid since launching in early 2019. From 2020, the only petrol variants to remain in the Toyota line-up will be the Yaris 1.0 petrol and the little Aygo.
Overall, nearly 10,000 new hybrids have been sold here this year, this is around 9pc of the market compared to about 5pc next year. It is a trend that will accelerate as hybrids and plug-in EVs are, as Steve Tormey says, the best transitional vehicles before taking the plunge to being totally electric.
Interestingly, I saw that Applegreen forecast they will soon start making good profits out of EV charging. The plan is to massively accelerate the number of charging points on their forecourts. They will then charge double what the supplier bills them for the electricity and hope that the customers will take on a bit of a feed at the forecourt cafe.
But back to Toyota; the 1980s and 1990s saw, in turn, two Corollas and two Carinas in use as my family car. The last one was the much-loved Carina E, which, coming at the very end of the model’s life before it morphed into the Avensis, seemed to have had every wrinkle ironed out.
It was perfect and I still miss it. However, I began to have my head turned by Lexus. I remember when I first had one out on test, I would go and sit in it outside our house and relax in its luxury.
Anyway, good luck to Toyota on its hybrid drive. That the company, presently with 10.4pc of the new car market and in second place in overall sales, is also putting huge investment in hydrogen technology makes the future very interesting. It’s strange that a marque, on which probably thousands of people learnt to drive and then had as a first car, is going totally automatic.
And now for something completely different: the Ford Focus ST-2 that I was testing was a massively powerful 2.3 litre petrol-engined performance hatchback costing €44,729 which was nearly double the entry-level Focus. It looks the part; lowered suspension, painted calipers, just the right amount of badging, and beautifully gruff twin exhausts.
More importantly, it walks the walk. The Focus has always had some of the best handling of anything in the car park, the ST-2 just wants to be thrown around.
There are all sorts of technologies in play here, which help to make the whole thing very exciting; fast but safe. It might do the 100kmh sprint in 5.7 seconds – which strangely is pretty normal for many electric cars – but that is just a headline figure. Its overtaking capacity is extraordinary and all round the car knocks its predecessors out of sight.
I was a bit wary about the week when the ST was with me. It has the engine of the entry-level Mustang and I know I could be a target for any boy racers; unfortunately, I probably became one of them. Taking my son back to the airport with the clock against us it became like a session on the Nurburgring. The car drove so fast and accurately that, with karma somehow on our side, we made it. I loved it.
If Toyota can have a literary reference, the one for this Ford will be Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach, which tells of a group of people in a corner of Australia facing eventual death as radiation spreads. Much time is spent in mad car racing. They have nothing to lose. With cars like the Focus ST and that real petrol roar of it, I think there is a certain element of the race to extinction. Perhaps in 30 years, people will reckon that we were crazy. But there was an awful lot of fun, and at least we could change gear.