There probably hasn’t been a single car in Japanese automotive history more controversial than the fifth-generation Toyota Supra. What had come before had been so good, so genre-breaking, that it put Toyota in a difficult, maybe impossible spot. Like Game of Thrones‘ final season, it was always going to be a tough act to follow, and with a long hiatus building expectations to fever pitch, the result was probably destined to disappoint in some way. Is the Supra a good car, though? How you look at it probably depends a lot on what a car means to you.
If an automobile is a tool with which to take the human body with its limited pace and fragile construction and move it around land in the most rapid way possible, then the 2020 Supra is extremely effective. Toyota gave us the opportunity to drive the new Supra in several environments around West and regular Virginia, and it delivered a forceful performance.
It stormed the road course of Summit Point Motorsports Park with the tenacity of a pit bull. Its 3.0-liter, turbocharged inline-six turned long straightaways into leisurely strides, rocketing forward with nary a murmur from its energetic 8-speed automatic gearbox. On the circuit’s tightly packed turns, the powertrain knew which gear to lock and load, and downshifted far more aggressively than a typical Toyota manu-matic. Combined with a capable suspension and incredibly quick steering, it made for a compelling track weapon.
If that’s all a vehicle is to you, then you will probably enjoy driving the 2020 Toyota Supra. Perhaps you should even buy one, so that the largest, richest un-partnered automaker in the world will see value in selling sports cars. But what if there’s more to a car than that? For some, a car transcends its utilitarian origins and becomes a stirrer of emotion, marker of history, or even a work of art. For those, the new Supra becomes much more of a conundrum.
The story of the previous-generation A80 Supra could be its own article, but to sum it up, tremendous performance potential from the factory not only gave it exotic-level performance right out of the box, while its ridiculously over-built powertrain fueled legions of backyard tuners. Garage-built destroyers of elapsed times were once common, and anyone unaware of the Supra’s abilities were subsequently introduced to them in the first installment of The Fast and The Furious.
It was a testament to Toyota’s engineering prowess — that it could make a supercar without even trying. Today, any lingering doubt about what it means for a certain generation of gearheads has been wiped away by the fact that low-mileage examples have sold well into the six-digit range. As JNC‘s resident market watcher Patrick Strong said then, “The A80 Turbo resonates with an entire generation of car enthusiasts in a way that can’t be manufactured or conjured by a marketing team.” The Supra had become, albeit somewhat unintentionally, one of the most revered nameplates in Toyota history.
That’s why it was so utterly shocking when Toyota announced that it had partnered with BMW to bring the Supra back. Additional salt was smeared into the wounds of the Toyota faithful when it was revealed that it would not just share a chassis with the BMW Z4, but also a BMW engine, a BMW suspension, BMW steering rack, diamond-shaped BMW shifter on a BMW console attached to a BMW transmission, BMW buttons to adjust the BMW mirrors, BMW’s infotainment interface, and even BMW seat belt warning chimes.
According to its Chief Engineer Tetsuya Tada, who was also responsible for the Scion FR-S and Toyota 86, the A90 is not without Toyota’s DNA. Supposedly, the Toyota and BMW teams split after deciding on basic parameters of the platform and didn’t speak to each other during the development of the two cars. Tada says Toyota was responsible for the weighting of the electronic steering, rates of dampening, shift map, exhaust tuning, unique tire specs developed with Michelin, and numerous other decisions that differentiate Supra from Z4.
That might very well be true, but whatever Tada and his team did, it was still within the confines of BMW’s hardware. Modern cars may have an infinite range of fidgetry available in the computer code, but in the end, it doesn’t drive like a Toyota.
From Cressidas to Lexuses, large-platform rear-wheel-drive Toyotas have always exhibited a neutral balance. Their chassis were tuned to be stable at speed and linear in their feedback through curves. Even when rear wheels ran out of traction, the transition from grip to drift was a single, smooth arc of motion proportional to the gas pedal’s angle.
A quick lift of the throttle tucked the tail right back in, and the car continued on as if completely unperturbed. Steering may have been overboosted, but it was never sloppy. Spring rates erred on the side of comfort, but were always predictable and forgiving. The overall sensation was that of calmness.
The A90, on the other hand, drove like a ball of manic energy. It charged forward torquily and bit into corners with the anger of rabid wolverine. Though the suspension was nimble, during quick, successive turns as weight transitioned from side to side, you could feel the rear suspension working overtime. The Supra’s 15:1 steering ratio employed what was likely the most sensitive by-wire system on the market, making it very responsive but twitching the front wheels with the tiniest of inputs.
As it happens, Toyota also had several new 86 coupes on hand for us to try. It may be half (or even mostly) Subaru, but somehow it managed to retain that no-nonsense evenness of temper that makes it a feel like a Toyota. On the same track, the 86 behaved like a dance partner while the Supra was a beast that needed taming. As a result, you can draw a direct line from the driving feel of the AE86 to that of the 86 in a way you cannot from A80 to A90.
This is not at all to say the new Supra was bad, just different. No matter if they were driven in civility or in anger, Soarers and Supras of old maintained a certain smoothness and composure. The frenetic A90 preferred to be aggressive and brash. It even had the pop-crackle exhaust sounds that are for some reason required on all modern performance cars. In short, it drove like a BMW.
About the only thing we can say for sure is purely Toyota is the styling. The team at Toyota’s Calty design studio headed by Kevin Hunter — an A60 Celica GT-S owner who also worked on the A80 — did a fantastic job translating the phenomenal 2014 FT-1 Concept onto a much smaller production platform. They managed to keep the long hood and muscular haunches in tact, no easy task when shortening the body so drastically. However, the mirrors take up about half the area of each side window, making it difficult to see the apexes when corners are tight, a pitfall of using BMW parts.
Nods to past Toyotas are present. The double-bubble roof and Nozaki Arc of the C-pillar, for example, were inspired by the 1967 Toyota 2000GT. The LED headlights are reminiscent of the triple-element units on the A80. There’s even dual hood latches, just like the A80, which Tada says are a must for any high-speed car.
It probably goes without saying though that the new Supra will, stock for stock, run circles around its renowned predecessor, despite having only 15 more horsepower than the A80 Turbo’s 320 (Sadly, Toyota didn’t let us touch the original A80 they had on display to verify).
The new Supra weighs just 3,397 pounds against the A80’s 3,480, even though it’s laden with 25 years of safety equipment, sound deadening, and a far more luxurious interior. The A80 never let you forget its mass thanks to its much softer suspension, obvious body roll present at every turn. The A90, on the other hand, seemed entirely unbothered by its heft. Whether cornering, braking, or accelerating, it stayed as flat as week-old Coca-Cola. A quarter-century of tire, suspension, engine management, and materials technology makes a world of difference.
Toyota claims the Supra’s center of gravity is lower than even the boxer-engined 86’s, the result of aluminum suspension arms, hood, and doors, as well as a composite rear hatch. It has a four-inch shorter wheelbase than the 86, and a wider track too. Add forged 19-inch alloys with a 9J and 10J staggered setup, and you’re as planted as a sequoia through the turns, especially wide-radius sweepers.
Back in the day, Car and Driver clocked an A80 Turbo at 4.6 seconds to get from 0-60 mph. With the A90, torque’s been upped by 50 lb-ft to 365 and arrives at a mere 1,600 rpm. Toyota’s claimed 0-60 time is an effortless 4.1 seconds. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it certainly doesn’t deliver the shock to the exotics that the A80 did.
Tada has his reasons for partnering with BMW: The uncompromising conviction that a Supra must have an inline-six, a desire to quickly bring this car to market before increasingly stringent regulations killed the opportunity, and wanting to throw the aftermarket industry a lifeline with a new sports car.
Tada-san worked with many of Japan’s top tuners to prepare the car for what he expects to be bonanza of shadetree wrenching. There are pre-drilled mounting points on the radiator core support and engine room frame for stiffening braces. Tada talked to A80 owners and found that in high-power builds, cooling had the biggest effect on long-term durability. As a result, he ensured the A90 had space for oil, transmission, differential and inter-coolers. He’s even working on developing manual diff controller. The trunk structure even comes pre-reinforced for an aftermarket wing.
If Tada is right, the Supra will kick off a boom in tuning, maybe the world’s last before the rise of autonomous and electrified driving. This, then, may be the Supra’s greatest similarity to its predecessors — its capacity for customization.
We hope this comes true. Still, we can’t help but imagine if Toyota had moved the needle as much as Nissan did for the R35 GT-R — a car that, incidentally, went from one of Japan’s most revered straight-six engines to a V6. Purists griped a little about that, but going by internet comments not nearly as much as they did about the BMW underpinnings of the new Supra. After all, it was still a Nissan through and through, and tuners flocked to the GT-R en masse.
Supra pricing will start at $49,900. If your objective is simply to find a competent collection of nuts and bolts for going fast at that price point, and you don’t mind driving an angry chainsaw on wheels, get to your dealer before it goes on sale July 22. But if a car is to have meaning beyond its lap times and spec sheet, some semblance of authenticity is needed. Even those buyers can’t bemoan the fact that a new sports car option exists in the age of the crossover. But they’d prefer it if you didn’t call it a Supra.