By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia autos correspondent
OYAMA-CHO, Japan (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> unveiled a highly anticipated sports car that it hopes will trigger the rebirth of the company as a maker of "fun" cars that it hasn't been in years.
Japan's top automaker took the wraps off the compact, rear-wheel-drive model at the Fuji Speedway circuit at the foot of Mount Fuji on Sunday, in front of thousands of racing fans, in a departure from traditional banquet-room launches.
The unveiling was moved up from the original plan to showcase the car at the Tokyo Motor Show, which opens later this week.
Toyota, however, gave away little more than it already had about the 2-liter engine car except for its final design and name, simply called "86" or "Hachi-roku" in Japan and GT86 in Europe, in a tribute to the popular AE86 generation of the Corolla Levin that took the market by storm in the 1980s.
"We've made you wait a long time for this," Toyota Chief Executive Akio Toyoda, dressed in a racing suit, told the crowd as he emerged from an orange 86. "At long last, here is a car for car lovers."
Under Toyoda, who took his post in mid-2009, Toyota is on a mission to shed its image as a manufacturer of reliable but staid cars. On TV and elsewhere, Toyota has been shelling out for high-budget adverts with the taglines "Fun to drive, again" and "Reborn," billing the 86 as a crucial first step to reach that goal.
The lightweight four-seater 86 is the first sports car under the Toyota badge since production of the MR-S ended in 2007. It was co-developed with Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd <7270.T>, which will sell a twin model as the BRZ under its sporty Subaru brand. Both cars will hit showrooms next spring.
The 86 is powered by the world's first horizontally opposed boxer engine twinned with Toyota's D-4S direct injection technology -- a feat, its chief engineer said, that could only be achieved through the collaboration of two independently minded automakers with distinct approaches to vehicle drivetrains. Toyota owns 16.5 percent of Fuji Heavy.
Subaru is best known for its turbo and symmetrical all-wheel-drive technology -- both of which it ditched to come up with the concept for the 86 and BRZ. Toyota has expertise in rear-wheel drive.
"Usually, when sports cars are developed, it's all about the fastest lap times, horsepower and acceleration," said Tetsuya Tada, the car's chief engineer on the Toyota side.
"But when we asked fans at motorsport events around the world, we found that people were actually looking more for an affordable sports car that feels good driving on any road, and that's not just fast on a circuit. There are few sports cars out there like that."
Tada said the 86's light body, low center of gravity and rear-wheel-drive platform made it sporty and fun, without adding the high costs needed to achieve fast speeds and acceleration.
He declined to disclose a price range, but said he wanted the car to cost about the equivalent of what average college graduates make in their first year, just like the Corolla AE86 in the 1980s. Today, that would put the price at around 2.5 million yen ($32,200) in Japan.
Tada said he had no idea how many of the car Toyota and Subaru might sell, but the reception -- at least at the circuit on Sunday -- was encouraging.
"I think it's fantastic that Toyota is coming out with a car like this," said 43-year-old Tadashi Katayama, who had come to the track with his wife and eight-year-old twins.
"I was a fan of the AE86, and it would be my dream to buy this new car -- maybe when I retire."
($1 = 77.6800 Japanese yen)
(Editing by David Holmes)