I'm trying to understand why there are so many people out there that are hating on the new generation Toyota Supra.
There are some that aren't fans of its looks. There are those who are underwhelmed by the engine's rated performance, or the fact that there is no manual gearbox. But mainly it's the fact that one of Japan's most legendary names in sportscars isn't actually Japanese anymore. It's made by Germany's BMW in a factory owned by Magna Steyr... in Austria.
Let me tell you though that after spending a day romping around the Japanese countryside just outside of Sendai, and taking it to the limits on a stormy day at the Sportsland Sugo racing circuit, the A90 is very much worthy of the hate... but in a very good way.
We pulled into Sportsland Sugo, one of Japan's great racing circuits tucked away in the forests and hills of Miyagi, Japan, on a rather gloomy day. The clouds were dark, threatening to drop some rain on the track and potentially hampering our time with the new Toyota Supra.
Sure, a wet track can be entertaining and it'll be easier on the tires, but that kind of weather will undoubtedly force the marshalls and instructors to keep a close eye on our speeds. I don't know about you, but take two flights, spend hours in airports, and bus ride whilst carrying my helmet to get here only for an instructor to say: “Let's just keep it at 60 km/h because of the rain.”
The clouds, thankfully, were doing their job of holding back the water that they contained, releasing only a few droplets here and there as I walked off the bus and towards a pair of Supras just parked outside the main building.
I looked up, wishing the heavens would give us a few hours of no rain.
Separated Since Conception
If you're interested in the Supra, for sure you've read some of the many articles and seen a few videos of the new generation model. Chances are, like me, you'll walk up to it with a bit of prejudice: you know it's got strong BMW genes underneath.
Toyota, through the Supra's (and 86's) Chief Engineer Tetsuya Tada, isn't denying it. Tada recounts that when he was in Spain in 2012 for the launch of the GT86 (or just 86, depending on the market) he got a phone call from his boss in Japan. He was ordered to ditch the event, fly to Munich, and talk to herrs and fraus over at Bayerische Motoren Werke about developing a sportscar... together.
That is how the Supra came to existence, a model that Tada himself had always wanted to resurrect.
For Tada, it made perfect sense. Sure, Toyota had just launched the 86, and in doing so gained new knowledge at making a new generation front-engine, rear-drive sports car. But the Supra's formula is different: it's supposed to be a front-engine, rear-wheel drive sportscar... with a straight-six engine.
Therein lies Toyota's problem. They no longer made straight sixes since the Mk. IV Supra was phased out in 2002. They no longer had the molds and neither did they have the modern know-how to make a new generation high-performance inline 6 engine since the demise of the JZ motors they used to power their cars like the Aristo, Crown, Soarer, Chaser and yes, the Supra.
BMW, on the other hand, was the only car manufacturer in the world that still made the straight six, and that's how the relationship came to be. But it was a very rocky start, says Toyota's sportscar boss. The previous head of BMW's R&D, wasn't all too thrilled about working with Toyota; not really surprising because they were probably insulted when Tada said that BMW hasn't made a true-blooded sports car since the M1. The M3, M4, and all the other M models are, in fact, tuned versions of their road cars, not actual sportscars. They were half-bloods, if you'll pardon the Potterverse parlance.
That exec of BMW, Herbert Diess, then took on another job at another company: he became the CEO of Volkswagen AG. That proved to be the trick, as his replacement, Klaus Frohlich, was far more receptive to Toyota's ideas about sportscars, together. Now we're getting somewhere.
And so that brings us to Supra. Yes, there's a strong relationship between it and the Z4 roadster, but Tada tells us that the story wasn't exactly about having a team from BMW and a team from Toyota working in the same room, developing both cars. He says that once the platform, engine, suspension and other engineering bits and pieces had been finalized, the two teams actually separated from that point on, never really sharing notes with each other up until the near final vehicles were already being prepped for production.
Drama at first glance
My first memory of the Supra was as a kid walking into a Toyopet dealership (or was it Corolla Store?) with my folks in 1994. We were in Kobe, and were looking for a family car. But while the folks were evaluating the Estima's (the Previa of the 1990's) seats, features, and cupholders, I was over at the corner of the showroom, looking at the then-new A80 Supra. Truth be told, the look didn't really make 12-year old me gawk at it in the way that I admired the Soarer over at the dealer's forecourt.
Today's A90 Supra is very different.
As I got next to the Supra, I just remembered something: this was my first time seeing it. Yeah, there are plenty of photos and videos of the Supra in our hard drives, but there's something about examining it with your own eyes.
The Supra, or GR Supra rather, looks... dramatic. Unlike the A80 Supra which appears to want to gently massage the air to go around it, the A90 looks like it wants to force the air into submission. This car's shape, curves and cuts look like they want to bend the air to their collective will, sending flow only to where they want it to go. Forget simple submission maneuvers, this is an automotive aero equivalent of a kimura.
Purposeful as the look is, I just admire the fairly long snout, the low and wide stance, the way the duckbill aggressively kicks up, and even the Gurney-esque bubbles on the roof. The A90 GR Supra really reminds me of a Dodge Viper, albeit scaled down. I also love the way they created a somewhat distinct passenger cabin compared to the body; it's somewhat reminiscent of the tapered profile of the cockpit of their prototype Le Mans racer (er, winner): the TS050.
Upon closer inspection, we immediately noticed a few vents that are clearly fake. They have that honeycomb mesh look going on, but they're absolutely not functional. We brought it up with the Chief Engineer who already had an answer: he made them for the tuners. Those fake vent covers are just that: covers. He says tuners can easily remove those if they require extra cooling in the engine bay for high horsepower applications.
Tada and Co. clearly intended the Supra to become a tuner's delight.
Many cringe at the idea of a BMW engine in a Supra, but before you reach for the pitchforks, ask yourself this: is that a bad thing?
Make no mistake about it: BMW is the specialist when it comes to straight sixes. They've stuck with the I6 at a time when many carmakers are working on smaller turbocharged four-bangers, which BMW also has. They mastered the art of it, and the motor under that lightweight aluminum hood and between those lightweight aluminum fenders is one of their finest: it's called the B58.
The B58 is a 3.0-liter, straight-six, turbocharged motor that makes 340 PS and 500 Newton-meter of torque. Unlike the 3.0-liter 2JZ-GTE that powered the top variants of its predecessor, the B58 achieves far more power in stock factory form despite having one less turbo. Yes, the 2JZ had two turbos, but the B58 has only one.
The key to its performance is the direct injection system which makes for better combustion, as well as a more sophisticated turbocharger. There is a bit of confusion because it's billed as a twin-scroll turbo (and marketed by BMW as a Twin-Power Turbo); that's not the same as a twin-turbo. Instead, it has two inlet ports for the exhaust gases (and pressure) that drives the turbo. Cylinders 1 to 3 are responsible for sending gas up on inlet to spin one set of vanes, while cylinders 4 to 6 are the ones that spool up the other inlet to another set of vanes. That split allows the turbo to spool up quickly even at low RPMs, reducing the problem normally associated with turbos: throttle response. High speed, low drag? No, it's high power, less lag.
But immediately we noticed something missing: we can't see an intercooler. Turbo engines typically have an intercooler in front of the radiator; some manufacturers like Subaru have a tradition of putting it on top. It looks like a large and thicker radiator, and it's intended to be a heat exchanger for the intake air. Exhaust driven turbochargers tend to really head up intake air, and that's bad; hotter air is expanded air meaning less power. Cooler air is denser air and that means more power, and that can be achieved by an intercooler. The faster you go, the more air goes through the fins of the intercooler, lowering the temperature of the intake air passing through the component.
The absence of visible intercooler -one that can be spotted simply by following the pipes- was alarming. Here's the thing though: there actually is an intercooler, but it's not the air-to-air kind. The B58's intercooler is mounted on top, concealed by the big plastic engine cover and fully enclosed inside another plastic box. The reason is that the intercooler on this Supra is an air-to-water (or air-to-liquid) system.
Instead of outside air, the intercooler itself is cooled by liquid that runs through it from another heat exchanger; basically a separate radiator. It sounds like Inception (a dream within a dream kind of thing), but in principle, it's very promising. The system is smaller and has less piping for the charge air (intake air) to run through from the turbo to actually reaching the combustion chamber. Yeah, it's technical, but it's supposed to be another way to improve response by reducing turbo lag.
One thing they don't really hype up too much is the tuning potential of the Supra. We already spoke of how the vents can be removed for enhanced cooling if need be, but the engine itself is an important factor in its tunability, perhaps far more so than the JZ. For starters, the block should be very receptive to mods: it's aluminum, but the design of the bore with the closed deck means it's very robust, and that means it can take mods. And then there's the air-to-liquid intercooler which is touted to be a big improvement over the standard air-to-air units. Those two already contribute a lot to the innate ability of the Supra to be tuned.
There will be haters for the engine because it's from BMW, but maybe we're forgetting that quite a bit of the work on the JZ series was done by Yamaha. Still, it would have been nice if Toyota, just for kicks, gave it a code that sounded more like their engines.
Don't whack your head
The Supra gave me a bit of a headache not because of the complexity of how to explain it, but the fact that there's a good chance you can whack one side of your head as you get in.
The cause is the shape of the roof: the downward sloping nature of it means there's less headspace to clear it when getting in. A few of us actually had the same problem, hitting the sides of our heads on ingress.
A performance car wouldn't be proper if there was no unusual trait that sacrifices some form of comfort or convenience. In a Lamborghini Countach, you had to open the door and virtually stick your body out just to be able to reverse into a parking slot. In a Lotus Elise, the running board is so wide and the opening of the door is so small that big guys had to contort themselves to get inside. In a Supra, all you had to do was bend your neck a little bit more to get in. So it's really a pinprick in comparison and it's not a big problem for us Asians, but if you're a fairly tall individual, you have to be a bit more mindful to not let the Supra to (unintentionally and painfully) blow your mind.
Once inside, the first thing you'll notice is the familiarity of the car... if you've been in a BMW. The steering wheel, the buttons for the audio system on the dash, the climate control panel, the control cluster for the multi-info system, even the adjustment panel for the side mirrors are signature BMW. I actually personally brought it up with Tada that a lot of the controls and touchpoints are very Bavarian, but he says that about 80% of the interior is different compared to the Z4.
Honestly, I'm having trouble agreeing with him and corroborating that, but if you've seen the interior of the all-new Z4, you'll realize that the two are very different. If anything, BMW was actually more creative with the cabin of the Z4, while Toyota's interior designers were somehow limited by the BMW architecture and the parts bin. But that's not exactly a bad thing in my opinion.
Yes, there are many interior parts and touches that appear somewhat alien in a Toyota Supra, but the impression that the Supra's cabin gives is one of rather impeccable German quality with a Japanese high tech feel, and it's very driver-centric. In my opinion, Toyota should have gone for a sportier steering wheel design, a different shifter design, and maybe slightly different buttons, but it all feels very high quality. I absolutely love the seats; not only do they look great, they even fit wider guys without a problem.
Raw on the road
The first order of our day with the GR Supra is a public road drive. That's understandable; not everyone will drive their Supra on the track, but they really should.
On Japan's B-roads, there's an innate rawness with the Supra. Even with the chassis and drivetrain settings in comfort or normal mode, you're really just adjusting between shades of dark gray, not night and day. The ride will be fairly bumpy on these provincial roads; it only gets bumpier if you switch to sport, though I think it'll be much better on an expressway or a tollway.
But the unusual thing about this Supra is how undaunting it is to drive. I had expected it to be difficult to maneuver the Supra on the road, but it isn't. Yeah, it's more visceral than most sportscars of the similar caliber and price tag, but it doesn't feel intimidating to drive. If anything, the Supra feels natural.
Once back at the track, we were able to drive the Supra on a few laps of a very narrow but closed off mountain road that bordered Sugo. It was tight; with corners reminiscent of famous rally stages like Monte Carlo or Corsica, albeit in a forest. Make a mistake here, and the Supra, myself, and the instructor would be taking a very painful trip off a ravine.
But the Supra was engineered to manage these rather mossy roads (it's been raining quite a bit in this area) with absolute confidence. Toyota had insisted that the Supra have a “golden” ratio between the wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) and the track (the distance between the left and rear wheels). The longer the wheelbase, the more stable a car is at speed, but it makes turning or cornering a little more difficult, and vice versa; try driving a small compact car and then a stretch limousine or any long wheelbase vehicle and you'll know. The wider the track, the better it is to control while cornering.
That goldilocks ratio that Tada aimed for is 1.55 to 1, and what that means for a car's handling is a superb balance between its ability to corner versus its stability at high speeds. A lot of the world's greatest handling automobiles have a ratio that's very close to this. The first generation Honda NSX had a 1.66:1, the Lotus Elise is 1.59:1, and the current Mazda MX-5 is 1.54:1.
The layout has also been engineered to put that straight-six as far back as possible in the engine bay, and the reason is to keep as much of the weight within the wheelbase as they can. That means the Supra (like the LFA from Lexus) is a front-mid engine, rear-wheel-drive car. And that means better handling and weight management around these bends.
I haven't tried the new generation Z4 yet but I am very familiar with the previous two generations, and what I can tell you now that if you design a convertible/roadster and coupe out of the same chassis, all other things being equal, the coupe will be automatically the better of the two. The reason is that the coupe will be more rigid as opposed to a roadster/convertible that has its driving dynamics compromised by chopping the top.
A good way to visualize it is to try twisting a shoebox: once with lid on then again with the lid off. The principle is the same: enclosed shoebox (the coupe) will be more resistant to flexing. For the convertible to get near that level, the engineers have to add stiffening components like extra struts and braces in the doors and the underside. And that means weight, and it's unsurprising for a convertible to weigh more than a coupe because of the chassis stiffening. Look no further than this Supra: the A90 weighs under 3300 pounds while the Z4 (with the same engine) weighs over 150 pounds more.
Clearly, Tada and Co built a true sports car, one that cannot shed its innate performance traits no matter how you fiddle around with the settings. Perhaps it also helped that the instructor sitting next to me was calling out the corners like a rally co-driver. “Easy left to long medium right,” said my co-driver Kataoka-san.
“Wow, that sounds like Sega Rally,” I observed as we came to a stop back at the paddock.
“Yes, I worked on tuning the handling of that game with Sega,” he remembers fondly.
He used to drive for the Advan PIAA rally team aboard a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI rally car, and you actually try his car in Gran Turismo 2 complete with Advan livery.
Mind = blown. I wonder if they still have Sega Rally at Timezone.
Bred To Perform
And so we finally have the chance to actually drive the Supra A90 on the Sugo racetrack; an Austro-German-made car in the home of JDM.
Standing on the roof of the pit garage, I can tell that Sugo is a special racing circuit. Many of the world's greatest race tracks are often very remote, and this is no exception, tucked away in the midst of the perfect forests, hills, and mountains of Miyagi prefecture. A sighting lap aboard the Supra showed that the track is narrow in places, and with unsighted corners that flow beautifully around the terrain and elevation changes that can make this a truly fun roller coaster ride. Except that I'll be driving.
On full acceleration, the Supra shows that this B58 has an immense amount of thrust to it. While the automatic gearbox may seem like a letdown, it works exceptionally well to deliver very fast shifts. 100 km/h is easily dispatched in about 4.2 seconds, though I think it's a bit slower than that right now thanks to that big bowl of ramen and Yoshinoya from the previous days.
Dive on the anchors and the Supra will respond quickly, firmly, and confidently. None other than Brembo, the default choice (and rightfully so) of the auto industry when it comes to performance brakes, worked with Toyota to develop the system that can rein in the 340 horses at the A90's disposal.
I was instinctively braking at the 100-meter marker on the main straight, but the instructor (once he evaluated my driving and previous training) told me we could push the speed up from the 160 km/h they prescribed. I won't say what speeds we did, but for sure it didn't start with 1 anymore. He said I can brake harder and later; try around 75 meters, he said. And so I did. This thing can scrub speed easily. Brake fade wasn't so much of a problem, though you will have to be careful with repeated laps.
After a short break (and another stint on the road course outside the track), I hopped back inside the Supra. Yeah, I whacked my head again, but that's what the helmet is for.
“Let's have some more fun. Sige!” said my instructor. He's Japanese gymkhana champion Masaki Nishihara, and apparently, he's married to a Filipina, and his house is near enough to be considered my neighbor.
He flicked the drive selector to Sport. Now normally the sport mode in most cars will alter the response of just the transmission, but in the A90 it alters the settings for the gearbox, the steering, the suspension, and even the exhaust.
On full throttle, the A90 felt more eager. It was almost brutal like we had unleashed something mad. Maybe the Supra was pissed off that the public kept calling her a BMW, and she was roaring mad every time my foot came off the throttle to brake, popping and burbling loudly.
The popping sounds are very much similar to the anti-lag systems (Initial D fans would know it as the “misfiring system”) found in rally cars. These noises are the result of fuel popping in the exhaust. The engineers could have eliminated that by programming a fuel cutoff function, which would have made the Supra much quieter to not disturb the neighbors, the car you're sitting next to at the stoplight, or Greenpeace, but they didn't. And it sounds absolutely glorious.
The Toyota GR Supra felt incredible when I tossed it around on the chicane, it was incredible to balance at speed around the double apex corners, and it loved to rocket out of the turns when I started taking over the shifting duties with the paddles. But it was the last corner of Sugo was my absolute favorite: a banked, unsighted uphill right-hander that can be taken flat out.
My right foot was cautiously planted, doing about 100 km/h at the apex, and then you're facing the sky. The Supra was superbly balanced at this speed. If you get it right, there's no squirming. It'll just feel planted, a combination of the great dynamics and that electronic diff that performs like a 2-way LSD, but can adjust itself depending on the situation and the need. The way the Supra's drivetrain manages power delivery is perhaps its greatest asset, especially on the limit.
I wanted to turn off the TCS, but he said we can't. That's all well and good; the last thing we need to cap off such an awesome day with Toyota's all-new Supra is a mistake on track like wiping out a cone or having an off-road adventure on the gravel or the grass.
Born of two worlds
In all honesty, I was trying to clear my palate before driving the Supra, specifically managing my expectations of the drive.
Circuit drives from Japanese companies are fairly rare, and when they do, there's a measured way they panic when you go over their textbook prescribed speeds on the straight, and definitely on the corners. But this Supra drive was very different.
Toyota is embracing a different side of their brand, something that their leader, Akio Toyoda, wanted to make happen. That's the essence of Gazoo Racing. The world expected Toyota to build just mass-market cars with award-winning levels of sales. Toyoda wouldn't accept that. He wanted better cars across the board -including performance cars- and tasked engineers like Tetsuya Tada and his team to work to get it done.
Now they did need the help of BMW to do it, and the result is a Supra that is worthy of the name in styling, in handling, in acceleration, in braking, in feel, and definitely the noise.
Is the fact that the Supra was engineered with the help of the Germans using their platform, engine and part bin (as well as their manufacturing plant in Austria) an issue for you?
Whisky wasn't originally Japanese. But that didn't stop Suntory, Nikka, or the other spirit masters of Japan from taking the concept and distilling it their way and winning awards. Many think that Ramen is a Japanese thing originally, but that's a misconception. Ramen was actually Chinese, but the Japanese took the idea of lamian and made it their own using the ingredients and broths that they had.
The story is the same with curry, the prevalence of the konbini (convenience store), and any other seemingly unique Japanese thing that is spelled in katakana, not hiragana.
The Supra is the same way. Are you still going to think less of it?