Sports Cars

Toyota Supra first drive review: More reset than reboot

Toyota's new Supra is getting closer to reality, and it's coming via an interesting route: Germany. There's more than a little BMW in Toyota's new sports car, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Toyota

Toyota fans have been eagerly awaiting the return of the Supra nameplate since pretty much the day after it went out of production in 2002. Introduced in 1978, Supra evolved over those decades from a humble options package on the Celica to a proper sports car. Its final iteration, the MKIV A80 Supra, was so frequently positioned opposite various high-dollar, Italian exotics through the 1990s that it earned hero status among the tuner crowd. The 326 horsepower from its 3.0-liter, twin-turbocharged inline-six engine was little more than a starting point.

The MKIV went away in 2002 but never really left the consciousness of those with an inclination toward the "import" side of the performance spectrum. Whether it was the ridiculously stickered hero car from The Fast and the Furious or the rather more tastefully liveried Castrol TOM'S Supra GT in Gran Turismo, the Supra... well, it lived up to its name.

Now, more than 15 years later, it's back. Well, OK, it's almost back. The new Toyota Supra's coming-out party happens sometime in the first half of 2019, likely entering production as a 2020 model year. That's still a long way off, but I've just had my first go behind the wheel around a prototype that's said to be 95 percent complete.

So, then, how is the new Toyota Supra? It's good. It's really good, but maybe not quite what you expect.

The formula

Many things changed from the introduction of the A40 Celica Supra in 1978 to the end of the line for the epic, twin-turbo MKIV A80 Supra in 2002. This new Supra picks up from there, carrying forward a few of that car's more notable defining characteristics.

The first is the overall drivetrain layout: engine up front spinning wheels at the back. That continues on with the new A90 Supra. Its engine, too, picks up where the last Supra left off: a turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline-six, just like before. However, expect more power this time around.

How much more? Toyota isn't saying just yet, except that it'll be more than 300 horses worth. Based on my time in the saddle and some quick butt-dyno estimations, I'd say we're north of 350. But, again, specific numbers remain to be seen.

No numbers yet on the weight, either. Toyota said the car will be less than 1,500 kilograms, or about 3,300 pounds. That's not exactly light, but what's interesting is how the new Supra carries its weight. At the Supra launch event, Assistant Chief Engineer Masayuki Kai was proud to point out that the car's center of gravity is actually lower than that of the Toyota 86, a car built around a flat-four engine specifically designed to lower the CoG. That the Supra goes even lower with an upright, inline-six is impressive.

Toyota Supra Prototype

The new Supra is probably smaller than you think it is. Here's how it compares to a Toyota 86. 

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Kai and team also spent quite a bit of time talking about the ratio between the wheelbase (effective length) of a car and its track width. While no exact figures were given, the Supra's ratio is less than 1.6, which again is more square -- and theoretically more balanced -- than the 86, which is of course a remarkably nimble machine.

However, with the Toyota 86 hitting the scales at around 2,800 pounds, perhaps as much as 500 less than the new Supra, don't expect much in the way of similar driving dynamics.

And don't expect the Supra to look much of anything like its predecessors, either. While it's difficult to really get a feel for the thing with that crazy camo covering, it's clear that the pronounced nose and ducktail spoiler will make for a distinctive approach. I'll withhold judgement until I see one without the trippy graphics, but I did want to pass along one unfortunate design detail: all the plastic mesh vents you see in the fenders and in the doors are solid. They're just there for looks.

Toyota Supra Prototype

There's a 3.0-liter, inline-six somewhere in there. 

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

JDM meets DTM

In talking about the overall layout of the new Supra, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out just how much of the car is actually BMW-sourced. Much like the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 are intracorporate siblings, so too the new BMW Z4 and Toyota Supra. That inline-six engine at the heart of the JDM Supra? It comes from the land of DTM. So, too, the chassis and transmission, the electronics and, well, a very significant portion of everything beneath the skin.

Is that a bad thing? Not at all, but it is something to consider and it's something that is immediately apparent the second you sit in the thing. The prototypes I drove all had heavily clad interiors, cloaked in black felt to hide seats, panels and other components. Even so, the BMW-ness shone through like a Bavarian beacon. To select drive you squeeze a button on the side of the upright shifter and pull it back, like most modern BMWs. An iDrive rotary controller sat exposed just to the side.

Suffice to say, if you've developed a bit of a special feel for Toyotas over the years, and as an owner of an MR2 I most certainly have, slotting into the Supra feels more than a little weird. However, it isn't entirely BMW.

The steering wheel feels particularly different. Modern M-cars are somewhat infamous for their chubby, squishy steering wheels. The Supra's, by comparison, is skinny, a little reminiscent of my MR2. Meanwhile, the fully digital gauge cluster behind the wheel looks rather sportier than your average BMW, though half of it was nonfunctional for my drive, so we'll save a full analysis of that for another day.

Toyota Supra Prototype

Heading out onto Jarama.

Toyota

On the track

Approximately 60 seconds after sitting in the Supra for the first time I was full-throttle exiting the pits out of the Jarama circuit. Used in Formula 1 until the early '80s, the track is legendarily tricky. Heavily cambered turns will help you when you get your lines right. Nearby walls will gladly punish you when you things go wrong.

Thankfully I had a guide in the right seat, British racer Abbie Eaton of Grand Tour fame, who kindly talked me through the circuit's nuances while I found my bearings -- and, more importantly, while I got a feel for the car.

And that took some time. The Supra actually has a fair bit of body roll and a somewhat relaxed poise that gives the impression of a car requiring a soft touch. As I'd find out, that's not necessarily the case. Pushed harder, the nose of the car (rolling on 19-inch, 255 section-width Michelins) had plenty of grip, so it never fell over to terminal understeer when run too hot into a corner.

The rear, meanwhile, was nicely behaved, the car pulling strongly out of the tightest turns with the help of a traction control system that was obviously working to keep that 3.0-liter motor in check, but working quietly without any obvious cuts.

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Also helping is a new, limited-slip differential sitting at the rear. It's an electronically actuated diff, but the electronics are just used to modulate the pressure of internal friction plates. In other words, it isn't just an open differential relying on the car's brakes to limit wheelspin. The Supra's ECU can switch the differential from fully locked (both wheels spinning at the same speed) to fully open (one wheel getting all the power) in a fraction of a second. In the Supra's sportiest setting the differential was quite aggressive at keeping the rear wheels in-sync, even under braking, the result being a very lively feel to the rear end.

And if I have to complain about something it is those brakes. The four-pot Brembos never exactly faltered, but the pedal feel was a bit loose and seemed to get looser through the course of the day. Whether the blame lies in the system itself or was simply due to a day of lapping on a hot, late-summer Spanish day, I can't be sure. Further testing is required.

On the streets

So the Supra is a capable machine on the track, but a car like this is going to spend the vast majority of its life on the streets. I'm pleased to report that the car was an absolute joy on the many and varied lanes in the areas around and between Jarama and Madrid.

We started on the highway, where the Supra was comfortable and composed, adaptive dampers providing good ride quality even on the occasional bits of broken pavement we could find. The car only seats two, but with lots of storage behind the seats and beneath the rear hatch, future owners should start planning long-weekend getaways now.

The Supra's even better out in the real world.

Toyota

When the hills on the horizon loomed closer and the road began to twist and turn, the Supra really responded in kind. I actually started my stint in a Toyota 86, doing my best to chase a Supra up the hill through some of the most amazing roads I've yet had the privilege of driving. With all four tires squealing I could just hang in the corners, but the much faster Supra just walked away in the straights.

Swapping into the Supra for the run back down was a great way to feel the differences, and yes you can certainly feel the extra weight of the newer car. So, too, can you feel the extra grip from the set of proper tires, not to mention the more sophisticated suspension and drivetrain. Again, the brakes were the only real limiting factor on the downhill run, but never to the point of ruining the fun.

Out here I was able to spend more time experimenting with the transmission, an eight-speed automatic that always did what I requested via the wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but often took its time. When left to its own devices, however, it did a commendably good job of aggressively downshifting when I was flogging it and lazily upshifting when I was stuck in traffic. As good as a DCT or manual for sporty driving? Not by a mile, but Toyota did say a manual transmission is theoretically possible down the road.

And then there's the power. While the new MKV A90 Supra may not compare to the some of those tuned Mark IV Supras with their watermelon-size turbochargers and lag for days, it isn't lacking in shove. What it is lacking, however, is noise. The cars we tested were on the quiet side, despite some digital injection of engine notes through the car's speakers. Yes, like many BMWs the car makes fake engine noises, sounds that get louder in Sport mode and cannot be disabled. Even still, when pushed hard the Supra doesn't exactly roar. However, North American-spec cars will feature louder exhausts than those cars we tested in Spain. (Sorry, European readers.)

Finally, while I can't say much about the seats (they, too, were covered) I can say there's plenty of headroom, thanks to that double-bubble roof, and overall the cabin feels compact but never claustrophobic.

Toyota Supra Prototype

You'd be forgiven for seeing a little BMW in that profile. 

Toyota

Wrap-up

If there's one thing you should keep in mind when considering the MKV Supra, it's that you shouldn't think of it as a reboot. Instead, think of it as a reset. This isn't the manic, massively powerful monster that most people remember from video games or in movies. That's good, because the Supra was never like that when rolling out of the showroom.

What will this new Supra be? It'll be quick but not explosive, responsive but not punishing and, overall, really fun and rewarding to drive. It will be the kind of machine you could reasonably drive every day, comfortably, and something I'd very much like to point toward some twisty roads headed in the general direction of a weekend getaway.

And what about the big questions, like how much it will cost and exactly when you can get one? For that, Toyota's going to leave us all hanging for just a little bit longer.


Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

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