New Toyota Supra
“an incubator for driving skill”
The last time someone won a Grand Prix at the Jarama race track in Madrid, it was Gilles Villeneuve.
Ironically, it was a race won at the slowest speed, as Villeneuve — driving the truck-like Ferrari 126C — had to use every ounce of tactical nous to hold up the likes of Jacques Lafite’s Ligier, John Watson’s McLaren, and Alan Jones’ Williams, all of which were better-handling cars. Villeneuve won by making his Ferrari wide enough in the corners that he couldn’t be passed, and then using the power of his turbo engine to keep ahead on the straights.
Jarama fell quiet as an F1 circuit after that, but it’s still there, freshly re-surfaced, and now sits before us, heat haze shimmering down its pitlane. It feels a touch absurd, under normal circumstances, to bring a mere road car into the hallowed hall of a Villeneuve victory. Road cars usually feel puny and inconsequential when you show them a race track.
Not this one, though.
Ticking gently as it cools down from a brisk on-road drive to get here is the new Toyota Supra. Well, almost. Covered in dazzling camouflage as it is, and with most of the cabin covered up by heavy felt fabric to keep prying eyes and lenses at bay, this is not 100 per cent the finished article. It’s an engineering prototype, so there are still some final tweaks to make, but with production starting in the Spring of 2019, this is a first chance to try out Toyota’s new icon.
An icon? Heck yes. Anyone who remembers the A80 Supra of the 1990s will know that Toyota — beige, boring Toyota with its hordes of hybrids — can build a Porsche-beater when it really wants to. That was precisely the instruction that Tetsuya Tada, the new A90 Supra’s chief engineer, gave his team when they started work on this new car. Give it the power, poise, and noise of the best from Stuttgart.
A tall order, even for Toyota, even for the man who created the big-fun, small-price GT86 coupe. So some help was drafted in and being as it’s always best to fight fire with fire, Toyota turned to the Germans. BMW has long been a Toyota partner, sharing technology and engines between Munich and Tokyo, but the Supra would go much further than that. The entire structure of the car, its engine, and its eight-speed automatic gearbox — all would be shared with the new BMW Z4.
This isn’t just badge engineering though. Although the 3.0-litre turbo straight-six engine is virtually unchanged (Toyota’s people still refer to it as a BMW engine, not a Toyota one) the two cars are quite different, and the diverged at an early stage of the design process. BMW wanted to build an open sports tourer, Toyota, and Tada in particular, wanted to build something rather more sporty and aggressive.
What’s surprising is that, on the way here, via some twisty mountain roads and some fast motorway miles, the Supra hasn’t left us feeling tired and achy. The body might be so tightly drawn across the mechanical package that it needs a (very, very cool) ‘double bubble’ roofline to liberate enough headroom, but the cabin is both cosy and comfy. The driving position is spot on, and if you do find rather more in the way of BMW switchgear and screens than you were expecting, then perhaps that’s the bit that’s not surprising.
What is, is the comfort. The Supra might be a sports car, but it has suspension that’s as good at rounding off bumps as it is rounding corners. You really could drive this car all day, every day, and not be the worse for it.
The engine helps. Toyota has added its own software, but its still feels very Germanic in its sheer mechanical smoothness. With around 340hp and 450Nm of torque (Toyota is still playing its tech detail cards close to its chest) it’s never going to be slow — the 0-62mph time is estimated to be around 4.5secs, and the top speed should be on the naughty side of 160mph. At low efforts, the engine is wonderfully smooth and quiet, but up the pace, up the revs, and up too comes the mechanical orchestra. The noise that floods into the cabin as you pass 5,000rpm suggests that Tada is actually trolling Porsche for putting its flat-sounding flat-four in the Cayman (he totally is, by the way — all but admits it outright).
Unlike its esteemed predecessor, the A80 Supra, this one feels like a much smaller car. It weighs around 1,500kg and that’s distributed evenly between the axles, but more importantly Tada has kept the centre of gravity low; exceptionally low for a car with a tall straight-six engine. It’s also remarkably stiff. In spite of a steel-and-aluminium structure (kept deliberately simple for cost reasons, and so that tuners and modifiers would find it easier to uprate their cars) the new Supra is more resistant to bending and twisting than the all-carbon-fibre Lexus LF-A V10 supercar.
You can tell that a picture of the Porsche Cayman was pinned right to the wall of the Supra’s engineering office as soon as you drive it. It has a very similar feel of immediacy and of being ultra-light on its toes. The steering feel a touch over-light at times, and the front suspension becomes a little too fidgety on bumps when you have the (optional) adaptive dampers in Sport mode, but those small gripes apart the Supra’s chassis and engine come together as a truly wonderful whole. It’s more refined and much smoother than its scrappier GT86 smaller brother, and has the sort of straightline performance that leaves the smaller car utterly in the dust.
And at Jarama. The pit straight gives a pretty good indication of where the Supra’s at. Long enough to allow F1 cars to stretch their legs, the Supra arrives at the braking zone for the tight turn one hairpin with what feels like massive reserves of acceleration left. This is an engine left entirely unintimidated by a race track. Leave your braking as late as you possibly dare, and the Supra will still look after you, guiding that low-slung nose into the apex even if you’re being clumsy with it. Tada has said that the chassis has been designed to offer more and more rewards to those with the skill to exploit it (“an incubator for driving skill” he calls it) but even at my low level of ability, it feels pretty brilliant.
There’s still a lot of detail left obscured. A price, for one (though in the region of £50,000 sounds about right). What other engines will be offered (hybrid and four-cylinder models seem likely). Whether you can get a manual gearbox (probably not).
But one thing is certain — the new Supra’s good enough to keep its head held high, even when it’s right smack dab in the wheeltracks of one of Formula One’s true greats.
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