Nearly a year away, we drive a "90-95 percent finished" Supra
At the press briefing for the 2020 Toyota Supra preproduction drive, one of the car’s assistant chief engineers, Masayuki Kai, wondered aloud if any of the gathered journalists had driven its blood-brother 2019 BMW Z4. 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-san asked. “Different,” I replied. “Different, how?” he and his assembled team wanted to know. I was equally shocked that nobody on the Supra squad had driven the Z4, nor had any of BMW’s team driven the future Toyota. Despite the international nature of the joint project, it turns out strict German anti-trust laws forbid it—especially in light of the recent, highly publicized “Dieselgate” case. The forthcoming coupe-only two-seat Supra and the convertible-only two-seat Z4 production cars share the same hard points, wheelbase, track width, engine, transmission, differential, tires, etc. As we learned, however, the cars were developed separately and have completely different software, systems calibrations, and tuning. Now it makes perfect sense that the two would drive so differently. They really are automotive twins separated at birth. Before we get to that, though, let’s take a quick detour on the poetically circular synchronicity of Kai-san.
German diplomat and philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt once wrote, “How a person masters his fate is more important than what his fate is.” What does a 19th century German philosopher have to do with a 21st century Japanese automotive engineer, you ask? Kai-san’s parents were concert musicians who lived and performed in Germany, where Kai was born. He lived there for 10 years and so speaks German natively. His family moved back to Japan, where Kai would enter university and later earn his master’s degree in mechanical engineering. While working at Toyota, he would be given the opportunity to work for Toyota Gazoo Racing, where one of his projects was to find a solution to cool the battery pack of the Toyota hybrid World Endurance Championship (WEC) race car—yes, that eventual 2018 Le Mans–winning race car. Soon thereafter, Kai joined the Supra team and moved his family to Munich, where they have lived for the past five years. So you see, Masayuki Kai is singularly equipped to accomplish the requisite synergy and translation between BMW and Toyota. The serendipity of Kai’s fate is fascinating, to say the least. Oh, and his benchmark, standout car in terms of dynamics is the first-gen 986 Boxster. He loves how stable and adjustable it is in corners. This all bodes well for the Supra.
A90 + B58 = ???
The internal name for the 2020 Supra is A90, succeeding the previous A80 Supra that ended production in 2002, but which we last enjoyed stateside in 1998 with its twin-turbo I-6 making 320 horsepower. As all Supras have had (A40 to A80, and even the 2000 GT spiritual predecessor), the newest version is powered by an inline-six. In fact, the engine is BMW’s B58 3.0-liter twin-scroll single turbo that powers a handful of cars and SUVs. As generous as our Toyota hosts were, they would not share with us any specifications—at all. Not engine output, fuel consumption, dimensions, or pricing. Nada. As it happens, we do know much about the new BMW convertible, and the B58 engine in the Z4 M40i is rated at 382 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque in U.S. spec. Rumor has it that Toyota wasn’t given the “up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A” code to access full power. It won’t say what the final output will be other than “at least 300 horsepower.” We’ll know in December when the non-camo-clad Supra drive happens. But sadly, the Supras we drove in the hills outside Madrid and on the Jarama racing circuit didn’t feel as aggressively quick as the Z4 did. As with the BMW in Euro-spec, the B58 in the German-market Supra we drove is downrated due to an exhaust particulate filter. In the Z4, the filter chokes a significant 47 hp to result in a mere 335 hp. Perhaps that’s the difference I felt.
As with the Z4, there will not be a manual transmission with this engine (wait, what?), but the ubiquitous ZF eight-speed automatic leads to an electronically controlled clutch-pack differential. Both tuned/mapped by Toyota. The differential is two-way, meaning it’s adjustable on both the traction and drag sides and is steplessly variable from 0 to 100 percent. There’s a launch-control system, and Toyota says that Supra will run 0–60 mph in “less than 5 seconds.” We say that’s conservative and will go out on a limb and predict 4.5 seconds.
According to Toyota, the three keys to making a pure sports car are the right combination of wheelbase, track width, and center of gravity. Although we’ve never heard it applied to cars, Toyota is very proud that the Supra’s wheelbase-to-track-width relationship comes tantalizingly close to the golden ratio (1.62). In the Supra it computes to a 1.54 ratio. Our last two Best Driver’s Car winners (Lamborghini Huracan Performante and Ferrari 488 GTB) were closer still, with a 1.59 relationship. There might be something to this. When it comes to the Supra’s center of gravity, Toyota is equally proud to point out that it’s lower than that of the Toyota GT86. That’s impressive since that car has a low-pro flat-four Subaru engine, not a tall I-6. The front strut, rear multilink suspension’s spring rates, adjustable multimode adaptive shocks, anti-roll bars, bump stops, and single-ratio electric-assist power steering were all tailored by Toyota for the Supra. We’re told these elements are still open for final calibration—and the stories they will read from the international press corps will help steer them. There are Normal, Sport, Sport Plus, and full-off modes that affect stability control, throttle tip-in, exhaust tone, gear changes, suspension damping, and steering weight. Finally, we were told the car would be “under 1,500 kilograms” (3,307 pounds) and Toyota is aiming for 50/50 weight distribution.
As luck would have it, I was in group one at the press drive, which meant my first taste of the new Supra would be on the undulating 2.4-mile (3.9-km), 13-turn Jarama circuit. With a half-mile front straight and corners with names like Nuvolari, Fangio, and Ascari, it’s a tricky track. The last Formula 1 race was held there in 1981 because the runoff is negligible. OK, let’s do this. We had brave pro drivers riding shotgun to help point us to the racing line and the correct side of the track over the blind brow. The first impression was how smoothly and quietly the Supra accelerated and shifted, even in Sport mode. We’re told the U.S.-spec car will sound a bit more gnarly. Acceleration is linear without an iota of turbo lag, and this is accentuated by the buttery up- and downshifts. In Sport mode, the Z4 M40i is quicker, sharper and sportier in these respects, but that’s by design. Both cars are tuned for an effect, and the Supra simply feels more fluid, and in a good way. The first laps, I was feeling my way around and listening to the instructions. On the first flier down the straight (second lap) I pressed the brake pedal, then pressed it further, and further, and my instructor started to say, “More brakes, more brakes” with a hairpin approaching. “Wow, that’s a long pedal and not much feel or bite,” I announce. “Is this a brake-by-wire system?” I ask. He didn’t know, but the four-pot Brembo calipers with large-diameter vented steel discs aren’t the problem. Later in the pits, I learned these are pure hydraulic brakes with stock pads and DOT 4 fluid. Hmm. In the next session, I tried a different car with the same results. I’ll venture it’s the booster tuning. I’d prefer less travel and more bite sooner in the pedal stroke—like the Z4 has.
As confidence and speed increased, I probed the grip in the corners. There’s plenty available from the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires (255/35R19 front, 275/35R19 100Y rear, same as the Z4). The turn-in characteristics are excellent, obedient, and confident. About midway ’round a slow corner, however, I find I’m dialing in more and more steering without the front tires making a noise. I didn’t overcook it, and it’s understeer, for sure—but it’s mild, not terminal. If the steering ratio were variable, not by vehicle speed, but by steering input (quicker ratio as you turn the wheel), it could address or mask the problem. That’s likely off the table since the rack must be a done deal. Perhaps looking into the front anti-roll bar diameter or spring rates, or using the differential to drag the inside wheel are still possible before final sign-off. The way the Supra exits corners is perfect. The e-diff puts power down without a fuss, and as the steering unwinds there’s an adjustable amount of slide if you want it. All things considered, there are still ways to make the Supra a better track car, but that’s not necessarily what it was engineered for.
Into the Hills
Fully 90 percent of the Supra’s development was done on public roads—hence the plethora of spy photos. It’s also the reason the car really shined on the hills outside of Madrid. Since we were again required to have a handler in the car with us, a second chase car, a GT86, was piloted solo by the second journalist until our scheduled driver swaps. After the mixed results on the track, I wasn’t ready for how well the very same cars felt on the road. That long brake pedal I experienced on the track wasn’t as big a concern in the real world. There was still mild understeer and a need to dial in a bunch of steering for tighter corners, but even at double the posted speed limits, the corners were confidently within the Supra’s ability. What’s more is that as good as the GT86 inherently is, it didn’t have a chance against the Supra. At one point, I was sandwiched between two 86s: a skilled driver ahead and a less skilled driver in tow. I could see the driver in front driving the tires off of his car, and I was just waiting, looking for a place to pass. It wasn’t just a horsepower advantage, either. The Supra had what felt like double the grip and half the body roll. I didn’t pass because if I had, I’d lose my swap partner following us.
The next revelation was how utterly quiet the Supra was on the highway. With nearly zero wind noise and barely registered tire noise, the only surfaces that upset it were exceptionally open or coarse pavement. Also, the dampers in Normal mode wiped away almost every surface irregularity. The difference between Normal and Sport modes is palpable, as it should be. This is an excellent road car.
Shrouded From View
I wish I could tell you how the interior looks, but it remained covered the entire day in black felt with flaps for critical switches. Toyota popped the rear hatch only briefly, but I saw that the largely flat cargo area connects to the rest of the cabin by an open pass-through a la Corvette, which makes the quiet ride even more remarkable. The seats were leather and well bolstered. The Supra has the same steering wheel as the Z4, and the buttons and switches I did see were the exact same as those in the Z4—all of them. What is different is the instrument panel, which isn’t standard-issue analog BMW. It’s more of a digital affair. We’re told that despite using the same iDrive-based infotainment system and display as the Z4, the graphics will be unique to the Supra. Along with the EPS fine tuning, we were told this HMI is one of the last things Toyota is still sorting out.
Even at this late stage in the car’s development, there’s still time to tune out the mid-corner understeer and brake pedal malady before the Supra goes on sale in mid-2019. Once Toyota address these slight conditions, the Supra will be ready to shame a Nissan 370Z and go toe to toe with a Porsche 718 Cayman, or heck, even the BMW Z4. Wouldn’t that be a great Head2Head for Jethro and Jonny? Whether or not the lack of power I felt, compared to the Z4, is negotiable with BMW remains a buzz-worthy rumor in the industry. Time will tell. With a ballpark price of about $60,000 USD, the Supra will be an aspirational sports car, and as such, it had better defend that territory with legitimate performance. Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that Toyota fully tested the Supra’s ability to do donuts and drifts during its development, ensuring what it calls “expected customer use.” But will it satisfy previous A80 owners who still yearn for a Japanese super GT/sports car? I chatted with one today, who works at sister publication Super Street. He owned two A80s in the past and modded one to crank out over 600 horsepower to run the quarter mile in the low 10s and nearly 130 mph (209 km/h) almost 20 years ago. Willie said he’d be tempted and could actually afford the new Supra, but he’s now a father and the lack of a back seat is a deal-breaker. (He also bet the week after the 2020 Toyota Supra goes on sale, there will be aftermarket exhaust kits and laptop tuning to up the engine’s potential.) Hoping to lure GT86 owners who want “MOAR” is probably wishful thinking, too. Kai-san said Toyota is exploring both larger and smaller engines (you can probably bet on a 2.0-liter turbo like the Z4 sDrive30i will have), so there will be room to shuffle a further-in-the-future Supra up or down the performance/cost ladder. As it sits now, the car has huge potential.
|2020 Toyota Supra|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe/hatch|
|ENGINE||3.0L/335-hp/369-lb-ft (est) turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,300 lb (mfr est)|
|LxWxH||175.0 x 7.40 x 50.0 in (MT est)|
|0-60 MPH||4.5 sec (MT est)|
|EPA ECON||21/31/25 mpg (MT est)|