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Supra Returns! The Inside Story on the 2020 Toyota Supra’s Comeback

Toyota returns to the sports car game with a thrilling successor to the original Supra

Toyota returns to the sports car game with a thrilling successor to the original Supra

Sometimes comebacks are good: Johnny Cash, the denim jacket, and mixed cocktails. Other times they’re not: Limp Bizkit, the fanny pack, and tater tots. Seriously, people, stop it with the tots.

In that same vein, it is always with some hesitancy that we consider comebacks of automotive nameplates once thought lost to history: Beetle. Z. Thunderbird. GTO. Giulia. Will it be a proper tribute to past glories while also flinging the brand into the future? Or will it be warmed-over mush, a conspiracy of shallow marketing and built-to-cost engineering with the old badge slapped on the trunk?

It is with such critical eyes that we gaze upon the 2020 Toyota Supra—in its heyday one of the finest feats of Japanese sports car design and performance. This is a rebirth seven years in the making, from when designers first touched pencil to paper to sketch the initial lines of the FT-1 concept. This is a car all but demanded by the automaker’s enthusiast CEO and grandson of the company’s founder. For certain, Toyota is taking this car dead serious. And the results show it.

We spoke with the forthcoming sports car’s designers, its engineers, and Toyota’s top U.S. product planner. We even had a track and road drive in a pre-production version (as well as of its platform cousin BMW Z4, but more on that later). Then we ventured to Toyota’s U.S. headquarters in Texas for a private photo shoot of the production-spec Supra ahead of its debut at the 2019 Detroit auto show.

Does it live up to its legendary reputation in making a legitimate comeback? Let’s take a deep dive into everything Supra we now know.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

It’s been two long decades since the last time a Toyota Supra was available in America. In the 1998 model year, the Supra, code-named A80, was offered with a choice of a naturally aspirated or turbocharged cast-iron 3.0-liter inline-six engine. Its peaky sequential twin-turbo motor was good for 320 hp and 315 lb-ft of torque, which was competitive when a DOHC V-8-powered Ford Mustang Cobra SVT made 305 hp and 300 lb-ft.

With its beautiful space shuttle body and a smooth Getrag six-speed manual, the Supra Turbo was quick (0–60 in 5.1 seconds; quarter mile in 13.6 seconds at 106 mph (170 km/h)) and admirably nimble (0.94 g on the skidpad and a 68.9-mph (110.9-km/h) slalom pass before there was the MT figure eight). Yet the A80 was neither muscle car nor outright sports car. Sure, tuners were getting reliable output of 600-plus horsepower and running in the 10s in the quarter mile, but the stock Supra held the space of a Super GT, even bordering on exotic, with a premium $40,000 USD price tag, the equivalent of $62,000 USD in today’s dollars.

Andrew Coetzee, group vice president of product planning and strategy at Toyota North America, described the A80 Supra like this: “Frankly, the last car—a great car—was a little bit more of a grand touring car, perhaps. It was a longer [100.4-inch wheelbase], heavier [3,505 pounds (1,590 kg)], stable-feeling car, but there were hollow bolts used to bolt the seat to the frames. There was a hollow fiber carpeting that saved weight. Throughout vehicles like this, you have a chance to experiment and develop some new techniques that you can use elsewhere.”

Turning to the new Supra, he mused, “but this one’s quite agile—a car that’s a no-excuses, great, well-rounded sports car.” As to why Toyota would invest in and build a car that will necessarily occupy such a market-limited segment, Coetzee said, “This car has just such a deep significance for us. We’re doing it not because it’s a great business model. We’re doing this because at the very top of our company, our president, Akio Toyoda, believes that we, as a company, really should continue to build exciting products.”

For all the high-volume Camrys, Priuses, and RAV4s Toyota builds, legions of loyal Toyota customers, dealers, and Supra fans had been “driving us crazy, hounding us for another Supra,” Coetzee said. One thing is certain: Akio Toyoda believes in listening to the voice of the customer. Here’s how his company made it happen.

The Silk Road

As the automaker did with Subaru on the BRZ and Toyota 86 (nee Scion FR-S) twins, Toyota found a willing collaborator to share engineering and financial resources with—in this case, BMW. It’s part of a larger alliance dubbed The Silk Road, formed in 2012, which also was to involve the exchange of BMW diesel for Toyota hybrid/battery technology.

For the Supra, Toyota worked closely with BMW, which engineered the hardware and hardpoints of the entire shared platform. What comes out the other side is an “engineering package.” That package and all of its internal organs, including those of the interior, underpin both the 2019 BMW Z4 roadster and the 2020 Toyota Supra coupe/hatchback.

But let’s be clear: For all their shared hardware, the two sports cars are distinctly different, beyond the obvious body styles. Anything that could be done to tune the package—every virtual electronic knob, slider, or curve that can be used to tailor throttle mapping, transmission and electronic differential behavior, electric-motor-assisted steering quickness and heft, power brake boost calibration, spring/damper/bushing/anti-roll bar rates—were all done in complete isolation from one another. Think of two architects given a set of raw construction plans and told to build a house in their own image, using their own language and materials, without ever talking to each other. You would hardly know the final results shared the same DNA.

As of this writing, neither company’s engineering or development teams had driven the other’s car. As a result, the Supra and Z4 provide entirely different dynamics. This sounds improbable, a made-for-PR narrative—especially considering the cooperation that was necessary to produce the common underpinnings of these cars.

But we’ve driven prototypes of both, and each has its own personality. Unlike the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ platform-sharing coupes—which are nearly indistinguishable from each other in styling or feel—the Supra and Z4 each has its own distinct body, interior design, and driving dynamic. What’s more, strict German anti-trust laws actually forbade further cooperation beyond the core of the car being co-developed in Munich.  So don’t be tempted to say they are the same car: one with a roof and one without. The Supra is every bit the slick Toyota you expect it would be or should be.

Back story: At the Supra prototype’s first-drive event, one of the Supra’s assistant chief engineers, Masayuki Kai, wondered aloud if any of the gathered journalists had driven its blood brother. I raised my hand and looked around the room to find mine was the only one in the air. Suddenly, the Q&A and all eyes shifted. “What is it like?” Kai asked. “Different,” I replied. “Different how?” he and his assembled team wanted to know. I told them their car was “smoother and more fluid,” which seemed to please them.

Kai’s parents were concert musicians who lived and performed in Germany, where Kai was born. He lived there for 10 years so speaks German natively. His family moved back to Japan, where Kai would earn his master’s degree in mechanical engineering. While later working at Toyota, he would be given the opportunity to work for Toyota Gazoo Racing. Soon thereafter he joined the Supra team and moved his family to Munich, where they have lived for the past five years. So you see, Kai is singularly equipped to accomplish the requisite synergy and translation between BMW and Toyota.

2020 Toyota Supra
PRICE $50,920
LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe/hatch
ENGINE 3.0L/335-hp/365-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 24-valve I-6
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 3,397 lb (mfr est)
WHEELBASE 97.2 in
TRACK WIDTH F/R 62.8/62.6 in
L x W x H 172.5 x 73.0 x 50.9 in
0-60 MPH 4.1 sec (mfr est)
EPA ECON 21/31/25 mpg (MT est)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 160/109 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.79 lb/mile (est)
ON SALE IN U.S. Mid-2019

Keep reading to get the full story on the 2020 Supra: