Editors’ pick

The 2020 Toyota Supra Is Not What We Expected but It Is Very Good

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There was a time in my life, starting in the late 1990s and lasting several years after that, where I’d pore over every car magazine I could get my hands on looking for one specific thing. Sure, I devoured the latest news and reviews. But more than anything, I wanted to know what was going on with the new Toyota Supra.

I grew up in a family that had lots of Toyotas. My first car was a Corolla. I loved The Fast and the Furious when it came out. But even though I was barely into my driver’s license at the time, or that I could hardly afford such a car, it stung hard that Toyota’s halo car was no more. I wanted badly for a new Supra to just exist, for it to be real. It was just something I wanted out there in the world.

Fast-forward 20 years. The new Supra is a thing, at long last. But if you had told me when I was a teenager that its comeback would mean a car more like a BMW M3—or more precisely, a BMW Z sports car—than any other Toyota, I’d have found that unthinkable. Crazy, even.

Yet the world is a different place now. And market forces necessitated the Supra become a different car as well. The good news is that while this Supra is radically distinct in form and mission from any one that came before, it happens to be excellent—powerful, capable in the corners, fast, full of the good noises, pretty nice inside too, and fun to drive above all else.

I just wish it had a manual transmission.

(Full Disclosure: Toyota flew me out to Virginia, paid for my hotel, booze and food, and supplied me with track time with the car.)

“This is not a car we needed to make,” Jack Hollis told a group of reporters eager to test it before heading out to West Virginia’s Summit Point Motorsports Park. “This is a car we wanted to make.”

Hollis has been waiting a long time for this day, just like I have. Today he’s group vice president and general manager of the Toyota brand in North America, and he’s been with the company 27 years.

For the last 20 of those years he’s been besieged by one question from neighbors, friends, employees and relatives: “When’s the Supra coming back?”

The car is an icon now, albeit one with a stranger evolution than most will admit. It was born in the late 1970s as a larger, six-cylinder version of the everyperson Celica sports coupe. Then it grew into a hefty, plush highway cruiser, and ultimately fell into a pit of Japanese Bubble Era excess—big wing, big turbo power, big price tag.

The Supra “did okay” in the 1990s, Hollis said. That is a polite way of saying it declined in sales every year and ballooned in price as it struggled to meet emissions standards before being put out to pasture in North America in 1998.

Akio Toyoda’s personal Supra

But even Hollis admitted the Supra’s legend was really born three years later, when the first Fast and Furious movie showcased a neon orange thunderbolt publicly shaming a Ferrari thanks to overnight parts from Japan for its 2JZ-GTE engine. In recent years the fourth-generation Supra has become more coveted by collectors than tuners, and clean low-mileage ones regularly command six figures at car auctions.

Though the reality was no match for the legend, the legend is what the new Supra—technically named the GR Supra, for “Gazoo Racing”—competes against today.

Having said that, “current industry dynamics favor high-volume cars,” Hollis said. That means that even when you’re Toyota and you sell more RAV4s than Porsche sells cars, period—and even when this is a car you want to make—it’d be madness to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into a niche sports car program at a time when that market is tanking. Plus, you need to spend money on autonomous vehicles and electrification instead. So Toyota went a different route.

Tetsuya Tada has been waiting for this day maybe longer than anyone. As an engineer, he was supposed to work on the fifth-generation Supra in the late 1990s, before that program was scuttled when said Bubble burst and Japan’s economy and car industry summarily went with it.

Then in 2012, he abruptly left the European media launch drive of his other sports car baby, the Toyota 86, and hopped on a plane in secret to Munich. Since it was decreed from on high that a new Supra needed an inline-six like it always had, his mandate was to see if BMW—chief purveyors of that engine in modern times—wanted to team up. (Read a lot more about this car’s development saga in my interview with Tada here.)

They did, Tada said. And after much discussion, it turned out BMW’s engineers had a great desire for their new Z4 to be more, to be a purer and better sports car than it’d ever been. Something that could give the acclaimed Porsche Boxster and Cayman what they felt was a needed black eye.

It was from that starting point that these two companies began their work. But Tada is very adamant that he and his engineers didn’t just put a “shell” over a BMW. The cars have the same platform and same engine, but different bodies, different tuning of the engine, suspension and gearbox, and very little communication took place between the teams besides joint testing and the occasional “How’s things?”

Specs That Matter

The end result is a Supra that’s no longer a luxobarge or just a straight-line champion. Unlike every past Supra it’s a two-seater this time, not a 2+2. If it had a back seat, it would not have had the handling characteristics they wanted, Toyota’s people told me.

The Supra is powered by a Toyota-tuned version of BMW’s B58B30M1 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six, same as you’ll find in the new X5 and soon other cars. It’s an alloy block this time, not an iron block like the 2JZ was, leading to some tuner fears that gains won’t come as reliably as they once did. We will see how that goes.

The Supra is rated at 335 horsepower and 365 lb-ft of torque starting at an ultra-low 1,600 RPM. It weighs a not-bad 3,397 pounds, boasts an ideal 50/50 front/back weight distribution and rockets to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds, making this the quickest (stock) Toyota-branded car ever. Power goes to the rear-wheels alone; all-wheel drive is not an option here. Benchmarked against the Cayman, it is said to have a different character than its Z4 sibling.

At the same time, the sole transmission option is a paddle-shift ZF8 automatic gearbox—the best conventional torque converter-based automatic ever made. As it is in every application, it’s good here. But in many circumstances it just can’t replace the fun of a stick-shift.

Inside And Out

The FT-1.
Photo: Toyota

At this event Hollis finally admitted, yes and officially, that the stunning FT-1 Concept born two years after BMW and Toyota struck their secret deal was in fact an attempt to explore the possibility of the Supra coming back.

The positive reaction to the concept made them do it, he said.

Photo: Patrick George

The final product isn’t 100 percent dead-on accurate—the FT-1 was long, wide and imposing, an absolute unit of a car, like something Batman would drive. But the designers nailed a lot of the important stuff. The headlights, the overall shape, the double Gurney Bubble roof, the wide hips and the conical nose all carried over fairly well. It’s also smaller in person than it would seem in photos.

The looks have been polarizing, and while I won’t call the new Supra classically beautiful, I do like how it turned out. It has the ideal sports car proportions—long hood, compressed cabin, short rear deck. And that rear spoiler is in fact a salute to the last Supra’s famous deck hoop, though it’s comparatively more subtle now.

In other aspects it’s a bit… much. All of the vents are for aesthetics only, not functionality. And that low roofline and thick A- and B-pillars make for not-great visibility from the cabin. It’s not Camaro-bad, very few cars are, but it does feel like window real estate space wasn’t a priority here. You’ll depend heavily on the camera in reverse.

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