New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2020 Toyota Supra Prototype

It might not be perfect, but it just might be the perfect Supra

MADRID, Spain – It’s been 16 long years since the 24-year, four-generation run of the Toyota Supra ended in 2002. Many thought there would never be another. But here we are, about to step into the all-new, A90 series 2020 Toyota Supra. So was it worth the wait?

At first blush, the answer is yes, but with a big asterisk: We were only allotted two four-lap sessions at the Jarama Circuit and about an hour of driving on roads near Madrid in the 2020 Supra. That is, of course, not nearly enough time to properly evaluate all aspects of a modern sports car. But in the case of a prototype that’s still about nine months away from production (the firmest answer we could get was that production would begin in the second half of 2019), it might be just enough time to get a feel for where it’ll all end up.

Pay No Attention to the Buttons Behind the Curtain

It might help to understand just how in the dark even those lucky few of us who got to drive the car actually were. The exteriors of the four Supra prototypes were wrapped in Toyota’s now-famous multi-color triangular camouflage; the interiors of each were draped in thin black batting.

What we could see of the interiors under that batting was distinctly BMW, indicating that much of the remaining months of Toyota’s development will be spent there, rather than on performance or chassis tuning. Not that it needs much more, but more on that later.

We also remain in the dark as to the specific power output of the Supra’s BMW-sourced 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine, though our finely calibrated butt dyno tells us it’s not likely less than 360 hp nor likely more than 380 hp, given the Supra’s “target curb weight” of less than 3,300 pounds balanced 50/50 over each axle.

 

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Speaking with the engineers trackside at the legendary Jarama RACE Circuit—a Formula 1 track until 1981—we learned most of the essentials of the 2020 Supra’s composition, if not the specifics.

The drivetrain and chassis are shared with BMW’s Z4 as has been widely reported, though each has been tuned separately; the hardware is shared, but the software isn’t. At the rear, an electro-mechanical locking differential enables full two-way limited slip function, with infinite variability and different programs for the virtual “ramps” guiding the lockup profiles on acceleration and deceleration depending on the drive mode selected. A choice of wheels ranging from 17 to 19 inches will be available, though Toyota says it will make larger wheels available if the market demands. The vehicles we tested all had the 19-inch optional wheels wrapped in 255-width Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires up front, 275-width tires out back.

Two suspension specs will also be available: a standard version, using traditional passive dampers, and a second, Sport suspension option, which lowers the car by roughly 7-mm and adds an array of sensors that scan the road, enabling the active dampers of the Sport suspension to further improve ride comfort while enhancing handling. Toyota says the Supra’s center of gravity is lower than that of the GT86, while the torsional rigidity of the chassis is greater than the carbon chassis of the Lexus LFA.

Talks done, we hit the track. My first session was spent primarily learning where the twists, curves, and blind crests of Jarama lead; the second session saw enough pace to get a feel for the car’s ultimate character, if only just.

The Supra’s overall balance seems to be slanted ever so slightly toward understeer at the steady-state limit, though it rotates willingly on corner entry, especially with the Sport mode engaged for drivetrain, diff, and dampers, and the traction control and vehicle dynamics systems in their not-quite-off, not-fully-on mode, accessed by a single short press of the stability control button in the center console. Driving off the corners, the diff applies the power with neither drama nor delay, sorting the yaw rate and intended line transparently and effortlessly. The brakes function in much the same way, delivering massive stopping power from the large-diameter discs and four-piston Brembo calipers on the front axle, though without much in the way of feel for where the ABS threshold might lie.

While it’s fun, and fast, and certainly up to the task of repeated hot laps, the Supra left me feeling a bit unengaged. In my notes, I wrote that it almost feels like driving a really good simulator.

We’re Off to See the Wizard

After that somewhat disappointingly limited track experience, I was prepared to learn even less on the open road. Fortunately, I was wrong; the Supra’s lines of communications, while somewhat muted on track, open up to full broadband on the road. The core weaknesses spotted on track are still there, of course, but because road driving is so different from track driving, they’re rarely, if ever, evident.

Toyota says it has done 90 percent of the development work on the car so far on public roads, rather than at race tracks. The road-focused development definitely shows, as the Supra is as rewarding on a smooth, tight mountain pass as your average Porsche, which is to say, very.

Whether you’re running hard on fast, open sweepers or braking hard for tight switchbacks, the Supra never fights you. Its systems and electronics are seeking only to help, and doing so only as much as necessary. The most intervention I noticed even during the most spirited portions of our public road run was a brief flicker of the traction control light with no perceptible reduction in power.

The 8-speed automatic transmission, too, shows its strengths—and Toyota’s—on the road. While it was fine on track, able to sort downshifts and hold gears as needed, the less obvious, often less decisive inputs borne of road driving are often enough to confuse even the best dual-clutch or automatic gearboxes and their software. Ever on the lookout for any reason to impugn the character of a slushbox, I can’t find a single fault with the Supra’s.

Even the steering, which seemed like the typically accurate if not particularly sensate electric-boosted fare on track, comes a bit more alive on the street, delivering enough information about the road surface to convince your lizard brain that the information you’re getting is really coming from the tire’s contact patch, rather than a clever simulation thereof.

There’s No Place Like Home

The all-too-brief drive done, the Supras headed back to be prepped for another round of journalists to experience the car the next day. While waiting for my flight home, I was left with strong but mixed emotions.

This is a genuine sports car, of that I have no doubt. But it’s a thoroughly modern sports car, and that brings with it the host of complications and regulatory compromises that all modern cars face. Chief among the ailments brought about by modern sensibilities on the Supras we tested: the EU-spec exhaust, which so thoroughly dampens the sound coming from that torquey, compliant straight six that it can’t be heard from more than 100 feet even at full blast down the main straight at Jarama. Toyota’s engineers are well aware of this, however. Assistant chief engineer Masayuki Kai told us, “We are very unhappy with the EU standards, but those are the regulations.” Kai-san also told us the U.S. market would get a “much, much louder” exhaust. Hopefully we’ll get a crack at that U.S.-market car in the near future, too. Hopefully you’ll hear us coming.

But the Supra can’t be evaluated in a vacuum. There’s the competitive set, of course, formed by the Boxster and Cayman and perhaps even the Corvette, and, obviously, the BMW Z4 with which the Supra shares its core architecture and powertrain. But more importantly perhaps, especially for the legions of 30- and 40-somethings that grew up in awe of the legendary Supras of the ’80s and ’90s, there’s the matter of legacy. As good as the Supra is, and as fun as it is to drive, and as worthy as it is of the name—and it is all three—is it really a Supra if the hardware is mostly German?

That question might be the most important of all, and it’s a question that can’t be answered on a track, or on a mountain road, or even on the pages of a magazine. That’s a question that can only be answered in the hearts of those who will or won’t buy the 2020 Toyota Supra when it finally hits the streets later next year in full production form.

But if you want my two cents, Toyota has nothing to worry about. The Supra is back, and it’s shaping up to be great.

Buying Guide
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1998 Toyota Supra

MSRP $31,078 Base Liftback

EPA MPG:

19 City / 24 Hwy

Horse Power:

225 @ 6000

Torque:

220 @ 4000