SUMMIT POINT, West Virginia—This isn’t the first time we’ve driven the 2020 Toyota Supra, code-named A90. Our first whirl behind the wheel took place eight long months ago in an early European-spec prototype, at the legendary Jarama race circuit. Even then, it was obvious Toyota was on the right path, but given the Supra’s BMW-based provenance, we had to muse: What makes a Supra a Supra? And would the market see this Supra as a true successor to the legendary A80 MkIV? Now, after dozens of laps at Summit Point Motorsports Park and dozens of Virginia country-road miles behind the wheel of the U.S.-spec production Supra, we have the answers to those questions and more. But before we move on, we need to understand how we got here.
It’s been 21 years since the Supra was last sold in America. Back then, it was the first of the Japanese arms-race sports cars to leave the scene; the Nissan 300ZX and Mazda RX-7 would soldier on for another few years. But by 2002, all three high-priced, high-performance, high-spec coupes were done. The RX-7 eventually returned in the form of the RX-8, but it too is now dead; the 350Z and 370Z picked up the 300ZX’s mantle in 2003, and have carried it through the present, but are decidedly different in the particulars—and the 370Z is about to age out of the market with no clear replacement in the works. That leaves the all-new, fifth-generation Toyota Supra as the only one of the three with a clear future. Having now driven the car both in prototype and production form, it’s clear that future is a bright one.
But there are those who would have you believe the Supra isn’t a Supra at all this time around, because it’s the fruit of a joint project with BMW. And while it’s true that essentially all of the hardware is sourced from BMW, and that the Supra is assembled in Magna-Steyr’s facility in Austria rather than a Japanese Toyota factory, it’s myopic to say such a Toyota can’t be a true Toyota, let alone a true Supra. In fact, it’s downright ignorant once you know the story.
No, the Supra’s relationship to the BMW Z4 is a microcosm of the world we live in. A world where divisions that once made sense, that once even defined lives and societies, no longer pertain or no longer hold the influence they once did. Gender? Race? Sexual orientation? Class? Religion? As much sway as these still hold, none are the paradigms they were even 20 years ago. Perhaps, for our consumer culture, our Mall-ocene Era, it’s time to add another sea change to the list: the end of the era of the Grand Brand.
After all, the brand to end all brands in our modern times—Apple—doesn’t assemble its own signature product, the iPhone; Foxconn does. In fact, the iPhone isn’t even made up of exclusively Apple-manufactured components; many are commodity parts simply chosen to meet a specification, some manufactured by well-known brands like SanDisk and Texas Instruments. And while the auto industry is no stranger to the use of common suppliers (the ZF 8HP eight-speed automatic in the Supra, for example, is offered in cars sold by Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, Chrysler, Dodge, Jaguar, Jeep, Lamborghini, Lancia, Land Rover, Maserati, Ram, Rolls-Royce, and Volkswagen, as well as BMW and Toyota), neither is it unused to the idea of collaborations between ostensible competitors. The history of the industry is littered with such examples. So perhaps it’s not just asking too much of Toyota to build each and every piece of the hardware that makes up its latest, ostensibly greatest Supra—perhaps it’s asking the wrong question altogether.
To Toyota, the Supra is both a legacy and an aspiration. To say the Toyota is just a BMW, and therefore not a Supra at all, misses the point entirely. Because without Toyota, neither the Supra nor the Z4 would exist. Wait, what?
Yes, that’s correct: as Toyota’s Gazoo Racing performance division head and chief engineer of the Supra, Tetsuya Tada, explained, it was Toyota that approached BMW with the hopes of making a new sports car, way back in 2012. Knowing an inline six-cylinder engine was the key to the Supra’s return, and knowing there was no business case for developing a whole new engine line for a small-volume sports car, Toyota approached the only company then producing one for such purposes: BMW. The Germans saw the partnership as a way to bring back the Z4 for another generation, something that likely wouldn’t have happened absent the Supra. But more important, it was Toyota who pushed BMW to make the new duo true sports cars. In fact, as Tada told us, BMW doesn’t consider even the M division’s products to be pure sports cars. Instead, it sees them as highly modified passenger cars—souped up people-movers, as it were—with the sole exception being the storied M1.
So instead of building yet another segment-straddler, Toyota convinced BMW to have the joint Z4-Supra target the Porsche Boxster and Cayman. The deal was struck, the architecture decided, and two teams were formed: one German, one Japanese. Each worked independently to integrate their hardware, design, and interior into two separate packages. Having driven both, it’s easy to say they’ve both succeeded in creating two appealing but very different cars from most of the same ingredients. And we know that the Z4 owes its existence to the Supra every bit as much as the Supra relies on BMW hardware.
That sorted, we still have some open questions: What makes a Supra a Supra, anyway, and whether or not it’s a Supra, is it any good?
What makes a Supra a Supra is a question that could probably fuel an entire Internet’s worth of discussion forums, but short of a global debate, perhaps the best answer to that question comes from Toyota itself. In designing and developing the MkV Supra, Toyota drew on the history of the previous four generations, but with special attention for the Mark IV, the most beloved and famous of the Supras that came before. According to Toyota, the Mark IV “became a design and performance touchstone . . . and inspired owners to start clubs, websites, social-media pages, and national events.” How did it manage that? Well, through its “striking design, turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, and driver-centric focus on world-class performance”—traits the company says the fifth-generation A90 Supra shares, too.
Thankfully, we don’t have to take Toyota’s word for it when it comes to that last part. Better still, determining the validity of the A90’s “striking design” and “driver-centric focus on world-class performance” will answer both of our questions: Whether this Supra is a Supra after all, and whether it’s any good.
On the road section of the drive, about an hour’s run through winding hills and four-lane highway, we found the car’s suspension, ride, and quietness to be typically Toyota-comfortable while still implying the performance potential lying just below the polished surface. It’s a fine passenger car, but then so is pretty much everything sold today, so no surprise there. The real test of the Supra’s mettle would have to wait for the track.
When we drove the prototype fifth-generation Supra at Jarama last fall, we noted the car left us “feeling a bit unengaged,” and that it “almost feels like driving a really good simulator.” Fortunately, Toyota has been through many iterations of engine, transmission, suspension, and dynamics tuning since then, and the results are transformational. After five hours of near-constant whipping around the tight, bumpy, and surprisingly fast Shenandoah circuit at Summit Point, the verdict on the production A90’s handling was undeniable: This is the real deal.
Balance is neutral almost to a fault; if it can’t be called eager, then at least it is very willing to rotate at both corner entry and exit. The rotation itself feels almost mid-engined in its effortlessness, yet it’s less sudden and less seemingly unstoppable than you’ll find in the typical engine-behind-you crowd. This is a notable change from prototype status, where the balance felt tipped slightly toward understeer at the steady-state limit. Now, whether you’ve engaged Traction Mode (Toyota’s name for the all-purpose sporty/inclement weather program for the stability- and traction-control systems) or turned all the nannies off (and they do go completely off!), the chassis tends toward a subtle, smile-inducing yaw that feels utterly natural. The result is a car that feels as ready to rock around a track as a Porsche Cayman S.
It’s not just the rotation that’s Porsche-like. Braking? Brilliant, allowing pedal overlap (read: proper trail braking is possible) without any serious indication of unbalanced bias front or rear. Acceleration? Brutal, especially given the 335 horsepower and 365 lb-ft of torque ratings, with the 1,600-to-4,500-rpm torque plateau putting abundant horsepower on the table at just about any speed, in just about any gear. Shifting? Really good in full-auto mode; grab the flappy paddles and you’ll be a bit underwhelmed by torque-converter-mushy downshifts. But that’s okay, because the shift algorithm is faultless on track or on the street when left to its own devices. The new Supra engages the driver, welcomes hard use, and rewards proper technique—so much so that we can’t wait to spend more time with the car. A manual would still be welcome, of course, and we’re interested to see how the likely four-cylinder model affects the overall feel, too.
Now, whether you think the new Supra is a proper Supra or not, you’re looking at a Toyota that drives like a Porsche. Stop and think about that for a minute. Then stop thinking about that and just go drive one. See for yourself. Leave the preconceived notions behind. Then you’ll know we’re not kidding when we say this is unquestionably the best Supra ever, and it’s flippin’ great.
2020 Toyota Supra Specifications
|BASE PRICE||$50,920 (base)|
|ENGINE||3.0L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve I-6; 335 hp @ 5,000–6,500 rpm, 365 lb-ft @ 1,600–4,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||26 mpg (combined)|
|L x W H||172.5 x 73.0 x 50.9 in|
|0–60 MPH||4.1 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|