Seventeen years after production of the fourth-generation model ended, the new Toyota Supra is finally here. It’s been a long time coming, but has it been worth the wait?
I’ve been thinking about mathematical equations. It doesn’t happen very often, I can assure you. Try this one: if R34 (GT-R) + 20 (years) = R35, shouldn’t JZA80 (Mk4 Supra Twin Turbo) + 20 (years) = A90 Supra with about 450kW, a twin-turbo straight-six, a kerb weight of at least 1700kg and a price, with inflation considered, somewhere north of $150,000? In other words, if the modern extrapolation of the Skyline GT-R is the R35 battlecruiser, you could be forgiven for betting your house deeds that its folklore rival would have grown the same way in the intervening years and be reborn as an imposing, weighty 911 crusher with sophisticated aero (like the JZA80 had for its day), extreme performance and a potential Ring lap record in the offing.
The unexpected reality is that it’s not. Well, I say ‘unexpected’, but such has been the protracted arrival of Toyota’s new driver-focused two-seater that Supra fatigue feels like a very real phenomenon. Yet still I find such cynicism easy to sweep aside, particularly with this Stormtrooper-spec example in front of me, ready to go. Why? Because it’s an iconic nameplate isn’t it? It just is, whatever your standpoint. And I’m very glad my once-in-20-years attempt at an equation is debunked too, because the motoring landscape is full of supercars that can rip to 100km/h in under three seconds, but is precariously bereft of genuine sports cars that might just be financially attainable at a stretch for a much broader group of us, and that possess a level of performance reasonably accessible on the public road. For this alone, Toyota should be applauded.
At 1495kg, the new Supra is lighter than an old A80, and 136mm shorter too, but its track is wider (1594/1589mm front and rear to the A80’s 1520/1525mm), while at the same time its wheelbase is less than that of an 86, at 2470mm compared to 2570mm. If you want to get an immediate grip on the modern-day Supra proposition, try to picture this in your mind right now: long bonnet, wide track, short wheelbase, just two seats, decent boot, low roofline. Classic driver’s coupe territory.
The engine is a familiar one: the B58 BMW single-turbo straight-six, producing 250kW and 500Nm – only small increases, in fact, over the 1993 A80 (officially 206kW but thought to be closer to 240kW, and 440Nm). But then you knew that, didn’t you? The BMW partnership, that is. It’s the conversation point that will have online debates still raging in a decade’s time. BMW’s effort, the current Z4, arrived first, and I have to be honest, it ranks as one of the most disappointing cars I’ve driven in the last few years. You get the feeling high-placed sources within Toyota feel the same, because they’ve barely been able to hide their surprise and frustration at BMW’s engineering philosophy and general lack of ambition to create a proper sports car; a car to take on the entry-level Porsche 718. It’s hard to imagine this corporate marriage lasting in the long term.
Toyota has been much more bold. It has been busy peddling the line that when president Akio Toyoda first drove the car he wasn’t at all happy, and gave it to Gazoo Racing to sort out, hence the car now being known as the Toyota GR Supra. Toyota also redesigned the front suspension, unimpressed with BMW’s design in this area.
What an eyeful the A90 is in the metal. A good eyeful or a bad eyeful is entirely subjective of course. For me, its proportions are sublime, as are elements of its shape, but some of the details, such as the fake vents and overwrought surfaces, detract rather than add to the overall whole. It is though, crucially, different, and for that alone I want to celebrate it – to treasure its arrival with both hands. Indeed, there’s a point mid-afternoon, when we stop for a tank of superunleaded and an ill-advised selection of garage sustenance, that I turn on my heels halfway across the forecourt and see it under the harsh lighting, and its looks cause me to break into a huge grin. The more I see it, the more I like it. After all, nobody ever said the Alfa SZ was a good-looking car, and yet I’ve always loved that shape, too. Beautiful doesn’t always have to be pretty.
Still, this question of BMW-ness is one that won’t leave my mind, and the initial kilometres with the Supra really do play to all my fears. Drop down into its low-slung driver’s seat and you’re confronted with BMW switchgear, a BMW infotainment system and a BMW iDrive controller. It feels like being in a BMW, garish digital instrument binnacle aside. It smells like being in a BMW. It sounds like one too, the engine firing with a pre-programmed and extravagant whumph before settling to a quiet murmur of an idle that’s instantly recognisable. My subconscious tells me I’m about to drive the new Z4 Coupe.
Does this matter? Outside those of us who write and rabbit on about cars for a living, and perhaps those in the motor trade, does anybody really recognise or care whether the climate control switches are from a BMW? That’s a tough one to answer. Toyota hopes not, but then the sort of enthusiasts the Supra is aimed at might have different ideas…
We often talk about how the first few kilometres in a car can be particularly enlightening. In the Supra, they are – but I have to say they’re distinctly underwhelming. While the exterior design suggests a full-on riot, the reality is more like a few disparaging comments at the parish councillors’ meeting. The engine hums without much personality, although it does provide the nicely elastic shove its specification suggests, and the torque-converter ’box smoothly slips between ratios. The steering has lots of assistance and the ride is calm. It’s an undemanding car – an effortless companion for the drive up to the Peaks for our photoshoot. Many of these qualities are positive ones, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed, craving for some interaction with the machine.
A quick stop for coffee and I’m on the road again, the Supra knocking back the kilometres with ease, BMW’s infotainment system feeling dated and clunky, initially at least, and the cosy cabin, seats close together but still with plenty of head and shoulder room, creating a suitably sporting vibe. It’s a perfectly capable one-car-garage machine: not too thirsty, reasonable boot space directly over your shoulder, all mod cons. This stuff – the sensible stuff – is important, but if I had this car as just a weekend thrills machine I think I’d want much more drama from the off.
Even when we leave the motorway behind, I still don’t really ‘get’ the new Supra. I’m shifting gears manually with the paddles: if the A90 really is the great driver’s car Toyota claims, then I want to really drive it – I’m not interested in it doing much of it for me. And I’ve long since put it in Sport mode, in which the ride remains more than tolerable despite firming up considerably, while the steering is a bit more connected too. This, remember, is a regular BMW suite of driver modes, not an ‘M’ set, so there isn’t a great variety of choices, just Normal, Sport and Individual – no Sport+, and no configurable M1 and M2 buttons (or equivalents) on the steering wheel either. All told, it’s one of those rare occasions where I don’t bother with an Individual setting, and simply drive in Sport unless the road’s surface is particularly poor.
But even in its maximum-attack setting the Supra is still curiously restrained. I check in with Antony Ingram, who has just sampled the car on its launch in Spain, including on track (see page 108), to see if he thought any differently (he didn’t), and these feelings remain right up until the traffic disperses and the roads finally turn more interesting.
I should have known. I should have had more faith in those Gazoo Racing blokes. They brought us the surprising Yaris GRMN after all, and who would have guessed such a loveable and thrilling hot hatch could ever have been conjured from the ageing and basically ghastly Yaris.
Essentially, the more I drive the Supra, the more I like it. It’s a slow burner, this car. It’s not the most tactile, for reasons already laid bare, but there’s some really good stuff crammed inside that voluptuous shape, and now we’re on some cracking roads, testing in terms of surface and in the way they’re draped over hills and scythe through valleys, it barges its way to the surface like a suppressed geyser.
What’s immediately clear is that the Supra steers vastly better than a Z4. Where the BMW’s steering is full of weird stiction and, in Sport mode, horrible gloopy weight masquerading as ‘feel’, the Supra’s steering is clean and precise. The actual wheel is much thinner than the BMW’s, particularly around the quarter-past/quarter-to areas, and hence is much nicer to use. Turn-in on corner entry is immediate, there’s very little in the way of desensitising slack, and from there this Toyota really shines. It loves to carry speed into an apex, and then getting back on the power through the active differential causes the rear to veritably snap around, rotating the car’s short length around its axis, and positioning it for thrusting out of the corner. It drives exactly how you might imagine a wide-track and short-wheelbase sort of car would: you’ve got to be careful that you don’t bombard it with too many steering inputs, but the way it changes direction is very impressive, and unlike say, Renault’s rear-wheel-steering set-up, it also feels entirely natural. The fact that the car doesn’t feel too wide, and that the brakes have great response and unyielding endurance, only adds to the Supra’s feeling of wieldiness and invincibility.
The relationship between grip and power is biased towards the former, so that, in the dry at least, it never feels threatening. With the stability and traction systems switched off you can provoke the rear of the car with the throttle beyond that initial snap, but there’s no need to feather it afterwards because it’ll need everything the motor’s got to keep the Michelins spinning. Indeed, backing off, even slightly, betrays the other aspect of a short wheelbase – it’s a snappy little monkey when it comes back into line abruptly.
Plunging downwards off one particular peak, the road falls away alarmingly, combined with a low stone wall jutting precariously into the line of descent, but each time I make the pass for Matt Howell’s camera I push a bit more, and a bit more, until it seems the Supra must surely gouge its nose on the tarmac and surrender its body control under the forces it’s being subjected to. But it hangs in there, soaking it all up, and the only piece of the puzzle that starts to show weakness is the steering rack, where the electric assistance appears to be working at its limit when also dealing with random and large inputs on both sides of the car: there’s just something unconvincing about the way it writhes in your hands, as if the assistance can’t quite keep up.
Driven in such a manner, it’s the drivetrain that begins to look like the weaker aspect of the package. I’d not ask for a single kilowatt more from the six, as 250kW is ample for a road car when combined with a sensible kerb weight, but I do wish it had a bit more personality. That initial start-up flourish is deceiving, because as already mentioned, it’s quiet and bland in normal operation and then monosyllabic and artificial in tone when extended, squandering some of the benefits of its blue-blooded configuration compared to something such as Porsche’s uncouth little flat-four. The power dries up a bit at the top of the rev range, but it matters little given the broad band of torque and the instant response to the throttle. What really grates, though, is the gearbox. Upshifts under part or full throttle are quick enough, but as is typical of a torque converter, if you stray close to the rev limiter it just can’t handle the situation, leading to a yawning pause as it finds the next ratio. But it’s the downchanges that really frustrate, because they’re neither quick enough nor at times precisely when I want them, and with no rev blip it feels as though the rears are in danger of locking up. It’s clumsy and ineffective, and seriously erodes the driver enjoyment in my view. Factor in the hopeless little BMW paddles inset behind the wheel’s spokes, and changing gear offers no reward whatsoever.
As it is, this feels like a power plant destined for something such as a 340i – a car where the majority of owners couldn’t care less beyond the numbers generated, and the same could be said for the gearbox. A torque converter may be ideal for a sports sedan or a powerful GT, offering a perfect compromise between the bases of sportiness and refinement, but it’s simply out of its depth in this more performance-orientated context. This isn’t about being a luddite, either, because while I’d prefer a good manual, a decent twin-clutch ’box with the right paddles would also hold plenty of appeal. It’s all the more galling because BMW already offers a manual gearbox in the Z4 (although not in all markets nor, annoyingly, on the six-cylinder M40i), and, of course, has its popular M-DCT option for M-cars.
Moreover, what really hurts is that for $99,900, BMW will sell you an M2 Competition, complete with a snarling, musical, high-revving, proper M engine and a wonderfully tactile six-speed manual ’box as a no cost option. Yes, that’s still more money than a Toyota Supra, but the difference in monthly lease repayments is going to be very small. For the record, Toyota is offering two specs of the Supra when it arrives in Australian showrooms later this year. There’s the $84,900 GT model or the $94,900 GTS that is on test here.
The new Supra is a fascinating car. I’m so glad it’s here now, at last, and it has much to recommend it. But it also feels like unfinished business, and for me doesn’t quite deserve to wear the GR badge. Simply badged as Supra it fulfils a brief, but to be a real driver’s car it could do with a bit more character in the engine bay, losing a few kilos here and there, and, most of all, it desperately needs a different gearbox. If Gazoo Racing can achieve that, then the Supra’s rivals should be very worried indeed.
Toyota GR Supra
Engine In-line 6-cyl, 2998cc, turbocharged
Power 250kW @ 5000-6500rpm
Torque 500Nm @ 1600-4500rpm
Top speed 250km/h (limited)
Basic price $84,900 (GT), $94,900 (GTS)
By ADAM TOWLER | Photography by MATT HOWELL