Toyota Supra vs. Ford Mustang Shelby GT350: Kicking Tail!

Toyota’s new sports coupe goes Head 2 Head against Ford’s updated pony.

Jethro BovingdonWriterJames LipmanPhotographer

The unbroken double yellow lines of the Tail of the Dragon flick left and right and heave and sigh with the topography before disappearing into woodland so dense that even the burning Tennessee sun barely breaks through. Ahead are 11 miles and 318 turns—at least that's what's printed on the T-shirts and mugs in the souvenir shop on the other side of the mountain—that should reveal whether the new 2020 Toyota Supra is the real deal.

Maybe it's the stifling heat, or maybe we're just lucky, but this revered section of U.S. Route 129 is almost spookily quiet. No motorcyclists, no cars ... just the Supra and me and a whole lot of solitude. It's the perfect place to cut through the hype, the hyperbole, the promises, the controversy, and the din of conflicting opinions that swirl around Toyota's new sports car more than any other I can remember.

BRING IT: This matchup might not be one you expected, but the Toyota Supra vs. Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 is a tantalizing proposition.

You already know the basic tale: Toyota wanted to bring its sports car (awarded icon status posthumously thanks to computer games and Hollywood blockbusters) back from the dead. Purists within the company demanded it have a straight-six engine, but tooling up to build one would be too costly. A partnership with BMW was forged where the Supra would be twinned with the new Z4, but their respective development cycles would split early on, with BMW going all soft and friendly with the Z4, and the stiffer, more focused Supra going Porsche Cayman-hunting. We're not sure all of that adds up, and jumping into a Toyota that looks, feels, and sounds like a BMW is distinctly unsettling. Over the next couple of days we'll delve beneath the PR spin and try to place the grubby economics behind the Supra's birth to one side. All that stands between the car and redemption is The Tail of the Dragon and an appointment at NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Did I say solitude? Well, actually, there's another factor to consider here. And it's howling and snorting loudly into view in my mirrors, headlights ablaze. You see, this is also a video production for the MotorTrend "Head 2 Head" series, and we have another formidable challenge for the Supra to face down. Not a Porsche 718 Cayman. Too obvious. Instead, we wanted something that embodied the kind of rippling muscle and aggression that once defined the Supra. Something front-engine, rear-drive, possessed of real firepower, and overflowing with character. The Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 isn't just a brilliant dynamic benchmark shot through with purebred pony-car DNA. It has the potential to expose the Supra as a fraud.

"Fantastic balance. Very little understeer and extremely progressive when it starts to rotate. The brakes coped well, and the car feels like a real sports car." —Randy Pobst on the Supra

It looks like a conspicuously good value, too. Yes, at $60,235 to start, it's more expensive than the Toyota (the loaded Supra Launch Edition lists at $56,205 with the base car checking in about $5K less than that), but the Shelby comes armed with a 5.2-liter naturally aspirated flat-plane-crank V-8 pumping out 526 hp and 429 lb-ft of torque, with a redline set at 8,250 rpm. Oh, there's a six-speed stick shift, too—an option denied Supra owners. By comparison, the BMW-sourced 3.0-liter turbocharged straight-six is rated at 335 hp and 365 lb-ft and utilizes an eight-speed automatic gearbox. The Supra is built to a smaller scale and goes some way toward offsetting that power deficit with a curb weight that's roughly 400 pounds lighter than the Mustang.

On the hemmed-in and wickedly unpredictable Tail, you'd guess these two cars were closely matched in terms of raw performance. The Supra feels small and nimble; its engine delivers strong torque from barely above idle and gets sharper still as the revs rise. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that this testing route is a happy hunting ground for the Toyota. The smooth, intuitive way the Supra covers ground is effective and highly enjoyable.

Sport mode introduces some welcome drama to the proceedings with pops and crackles on the overrun but also gives the steering a sticky, unnatural weight. Fortunately, you can mix and match modes and go for the angriest engine, gearbox, and damper settings with the lighter standard steering setup. It's never truly feelsome, but the smooth, accurate rack matches the Supra's character. The iconography of this Japanese star might be flame-belching monsters tuned to 1,000 hp, but the new car displays a slightly more laid-back vibe. It's fast, exhibits fine body control, and really does feel sweetly balanced, though there's not much grit in its eye.

The Shelby has shadowed the Supra's every move, and the noise that emanates from it is extraordinary. Enough—just—to drown out my co-host, Jonny Lieberman, which is some feat. The din fades as Lieberman drops into the Supra (praise be for German/Japanese build quality and insulation), and I elect to watch the Toyota head off into the distance and follow a few minutes later to experience the GT350 with no distraction. This new 2019 GT350 has been subtly tweaked and polished to offer much of the hard-core GT350R's sharpness but with a slightly more usable brief. (The GT350R was itself upgraded for 2020.) Spring rates are up 10 percent at the front, reduced by 6 percent at the rear for optimization of the thicker, hollow anti-roll bar (up from 22 to 24mm). The standard MagneRide dampers are retuned, too. Although the Brembo braking system remains the same, the ABS and EBD have been reprogrammed in an effort to improve stability under deceleration. Finally, the GT350 benefits from huge Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. The fronts are 295-section monsters, and the rears are 305/35R19s. Grip shouldn't be an issue.

But all you think about initially is that engine—for all the right reasons. The Shelby's Voodoo engine might lack the torque you'd expect from a V-8 of its size, but for response, top-end power, and a fierce sense of drama, it's hard to beat. Forget the soft-edged, woofly response of a traditional V-8 or even the offbeat hammering of a highly tuned small-block—this thing tears into the humid air and rips it to glass-sharp shreds. On the Tail's tighter turns it's a surprise to discover the Supra seems to fire out of curves with more urgency; still, I'd swap the Toyota's any-rev creamy torque for the living, snorting, howling Shelby engine in a heartbeat. And with a manual gearbox, suddenly the road seems to come to life. Rather than just skimming over its surface, you're hoovering up every detail, making critical gearshift decisions, and being drawn into the process of ingesting this crazy road.

Is the Toyota Supra too much BMW? Such thoughts disappear when you're engrossed in the fun it delivers.

The physicality of the experience extends to the chassis, too. The GT350 is stiff. Perhaps too stiff for some. And when those big front tires lock on to cambers, they can pull you around if you're too timid with your steering inputs. Be careful how you configure the car, too. There are various modes (Normal, Sport, Track, Weather, Drag), plus you can adjust the dampers and steering settings independently if you so choose. On the road, the softest suspension setup, lightest steering, and Sport mode for engine response and traction control seems about perfect. Anything more aggressive simply makes the steering horribly gloopy and the suspension unnecessarily crashy.

So the Shelby doesn't have the Supra's smoothly buffed dynamics or its easy-access performance. It makes you work. But the payback comes thick and fast. There's more grip, the front end is more precise and trustworthy, and the car courses with the sort of feedback that a Supra owner will simply never experience. On the flip side, one glaring problem with the Shelby is its extremely high level of grip, which creates a snappiness at the limit. The front never seems to run out of grip, and because the rear axle isn't shocked with great lumps of torque, you start to feel invincible. But then a spike of oversteer makes you realize you're all too mortal. The Supra, by comparison, is an easy car to handle even beyond the limit thanks to its progressive chassis and calm, slightly softer-edged demeanor.

We leave the Tail of the Dragon absolutely in the thrall of the Shelby and impressed but not quite in love with the Supra. The Toyota covers ground quickly and with real fluidity, it looks cool and quirky, and there's no question that its balance shades the spikier Mustang. Personality? A sense of identity? That's where it's lacking. Now, you might call all this stuff intangible nonsense and point out that the Supra has a far better interior, a much nicer ride, and a general sense of wellbeing and quality that shames the Mustang. All true. But any sports car needs a lot more than that to win us over—especially one wearing such an iconic script on its trunk.

For some hard-core drivers, the fact that the Shelby GT350 is only available with a manual transmission is no small thing.

In the end, the Supra has 2 minutes and 16.75 seconds to save itself from a humbling defeat by the Shelby. That's how quickly professional racer Randy Pobst hustles the GT350 around the brilliant NCM Motorsports Park track. Pobst reports a surprising amount of understeer in the GT350 (perhaps why the GT350 now has adjustable camber plates to dial up track geometry) but phenomenal traction and braking performance. He also loved having all those revs to play with. Maybe this is the Supra's moment to shine.

"Fantastic balance," Pobst says, beaming after his laps in the Supra. "Very little understeer and extremely progressive when it starts to rotate. The brakes coped well, and the car feels like a real sports car." He did think the Supra needed a little more support in terms of damping. He wanted that sharpness and aggression that was missing on the road, too. The stopwatch tells its own story. The Supra records a 2:23.01. Not even close. For absolute parity we even fitted the Supra with a set of the ultra-sticky Cup 2 tires. The result was a 2:20.82—better, but still some ways short of the mighty Shelby.

When the cars hit the racetrack, it was clear the Ford Mustang was a winner—but can Toyota uncork more from the Supra package?

So that's it? The Shelby GT350 kicks sand in the Supra's face in terms of raw track performance and schools it in terms of character and excitement, too. Game over? Perhaps, but it feels like there's a pretty special car just waiting to burst out of the Supra. There's no question it's sharper and more fun than its BMW Z4 twin, and there are flickers of magic on every drive. If Toyota could just fan the flames, break free of the Supra's slightly restrained and polite parameters, and uncover something with the same delicious balance but more guts, more intensity, more Supra, it might just be onto something. I doubt the Shelby GT350 even entered into Toyota's thoughts as it set about imagining its Cayman beater, but it would do well to take a few tips from Shelby's furious, fantastic, and wildly entertaining take on the pony car.

2020 Toyota Supra Specifications
ON SALE Now
BASE PRICES $50,905 (base)
ENGINE 3.0L turbo DOHC 24-valve I-6; 335 hp @ 5,000-6,500 rpm, 365 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 24/31 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 172.5 x 73.0 x 50.9 in
WHEELBASE 97.2 in
WEIGHT 3,397 lb
0-60 MPH
4.1 sec
TOP SPEED
155 mph
2019 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 Specifications
ON SALE Now
BASE PRICES $60,235 (base)
ENGINE 5.2L DOHC 32-valve V-8; 526 hp @ 7,500 rpm, 429 lb-ft @ 4,750 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 14/21 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 188.9 x 75.9 x 54.2 in
WHEELBASE 107.1 in
WEIGHT 3,791 lb
0-60 MPH
4.3 sec
TOP SPEED
180 mph

Everyone loves a contest, and the "Head 2 Head" show tells it like it is, with contributor Jethro Bovingdon and his partner in crime, Jonny Lieberman, pitting some of the world's most amazing cars against each other. Catch all the latest episodes including this one at MotorTrend OnDemand and via the MotorTrend app.

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