MADRID, Spain – "Smoke him!” The famous line delivered by Vin Diesel in 2001’s The Fast and the Furious when a bright-orange A80 Supra lines up next to Italy’s finest represents something more than just winning a street race.
The Supra is a cult car that allows the “working class” to mix it with the bourgeoisie when it comes to performance cars. Even in standard 2JZ 3,0-litre twin-turbo form, the A80 was a formidable performance car, with CAR proclaiming it “one of the fastest cars we’ve ever tested” in the January 1994 issue. In short, the new car has a lot to live up to.
Joint venture with BMW
Developing a low-volume sportscar is an expensive exercise and was the reason Toyota collaborated with Subaru to develop the 86 and BRZ. This time round, the joint venture stretches across the ocean and cultural barriers, all the way to Germany and the headquarters of BMW. This makes complete financial sense, as BMW was already in the planning stages of an all-new Z4 on a box-fresh Cluster Architecture (CLAR) that would resonate with key Supra attributes: front-mounted engine, six cylinders and rear-wheel drive.
The programme kicked off with Toyota and BMW fixing the dimensions of the platform. According to assistant chief engineer, Masayuki Kai, this allowed a wheelbase-to-track ratio of less than 1,6 – seen as the “golden ratio” to achieve great agility. This low number was impossible with the 86, which needed to accommodate an extra two seats; the Supra is strictly a two-seater.
The hardware, supplied almost exclusively by BMW, including the powertrain, was agreed upon with the vehicle set to be manufactured at supplier Magna Steyr’s factory in Graz, Austria (also home to the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, among others). That said, none of the external body panels is shared and the Supra is available only with a fixed roof, distancing itself from the Z4’s cloth top.
In 2014, Toyota and BMW separated their engineering focus on the suspension tuning, tyre development and software calibration of the powertrain to ensure each vehicle feels unique. At a Q&A during the launch, Toyota’s engineers were reluctant to field questions on the Z4 simply because they’re unable to answer them.
Toyota is proud of the changes it introduced to the package, including specific spring and (adaptive) damper settings; alterations to the stiffness of the anti-roll bars, including a completely new front unit with different routing; larger-diameter brake discs grabbed by four-pot Brembo callipers; and an electronically controlled rear limited-slip differential. The result is a 50:50 mass distribution, the aim from the get-go.
While the camouflage covering the prototypes you see in these images does a good job in hiding the curves of the Supra, it’s clearly a much smaller vehicle than the previous version. The sharp lines are true to the FT-1 concept shown first at the 2014 North American International Auto Show, most notably the sharp nose and broad, muscular rear. It’s not a shape which can be called pretty, but it’s certainly arresting.
The interiors of the pre-launch vehicles are covered with a black felt-like material to hide the details until the official unveiling, but it is clear most of the switchgear came straight from the BMW parts bin, including the gear shifter, iDrive infotainment system, buttons for the climate control and even the switches on the steering wheel. The latter’s shape and the digital instrumentation are bespoke to the Supra.
On the road...
The driving position is spot-on, with the seat set low (the car’s centre of gravity is nearer to the ground than an 86’s) and the view over the long bonnet is pure sportscar. Leaving our hotel in Madrid, we spend a while filtering through peak-hour traffic before we hit Spain’s freeways. This shows the vehicle is perfectly capable as an everyday runner and excels at eating motorway miles in comfort mode. In fact, it feels quite close in character to a Nissan 370Z; just more modern, obviously.
Time to hit the sport button as motorways make way for snaking country lanes. The powertrain response sharpens and the dampers stiffen. Nailing the throttle reveals more BMW traits – including a distinct Bavarian inline-six howl, plus lots of power. Shifts from the eight-speed transmission are crisp (there’s no word yet on a manual version) and the steering is direct (almost too direct) and accurate.
It is easy to build a rhythm on smooth, flowing country roads and cover ground quicker than you realise. Toyota isn’t guarded with its aspirations; the engineers cite the BMW M2 and Porsche Cayman S as key rivals. We need a racetrack to find out if it’s indeed that sharp…
Hitting the track
Conveniently, we soon arrive at the newly resurfaced Circuit of Jarama. To protect the prototype I’m driving, it’s a firm “no” from my instructor when I want to switch the traction control system from on to its mid setting.
According to master test driver Herwig Daenens, the Supra is supremely talented at sideways action. After a couple of sighting laps, it’s time to pull the pin. With “more than” 224 kW and weighing around 1,5 tonnes, the Supra certainly feels quick enough. The chassis displays great balance and there’s good mechanical grip (it runs on Michelin rubber). It’s an easy car to drive fast … but does it lack some rawness buyers might crave? We’ll find out when the vehicle launches in South Africa in June 2019.
Toyota was brave in signing the joint venture with BMW, knowing it may risk denting the Supra’s bespoke heritage. But it’s certainly paid off (unsurprising, really, when you consider the German brand’s history is not exactly bereft of great driver’s cars). Pricing, of course, will be key, but the name may just carry enough gravitas to lure hardcore Toyota fans. Once they drive the new Supra, they’ll undoubtedly be hooked.
Author: Nicol Louw