Toy­ota’s hard­core take on the Z4

Why it might be worth wait­ing for the coupe ver­sion

CAR (UK) - - CONTENTS - Words Ben Miller I Il­lus­tra­tions Avar­varii

BMW’s Z4 is in­ished. Toy­ota’s, which uses the same plat­form and en­gine in an am­bi­tious Porsche-bash­ing coupe called Supra, ar­rives in 2019 – and we’ve driven a pro­to­type

HIGH IN THE hills north-west of Madrid, our pro­to­type drive op­por­tu­nity for Toy­ota’s long-awaited Supra is so far prov­ing a com­pelling show­case for its ev­er­green GT86. The roads are su­perb: quick, smooth, wide and rest­less. If you’re not chang­ing di­rec­tion you’re chang­ing gear, re­lent­lessly flog­ging the un­blown boxer four as you guide the lit­tle two-seater’s low, bluff nose through turn after end­less turn, its at­ti­tude across its four gen­tly squeal­ing con­tact patches del­i­cately bal­anced on the ac­tions of your hands and right foot. Un­der­pow­ered the GT86 may be, but it re­mains a sen­sa­tion­ally re­ward­ing sports car.

With the new Supra, his­tory’s promis­ing to re­peat. Like the GT86, it’s mas­ter­minded by Toy­ota en­gi­neer­ing mav­er­ick Tet­suya Tada, the man head­ing up its Ga­zoo Rac­ing per­for­mance arm and who fi­nally de­liv­ered a Toy­ota Le Mans win after so much heart­break. And like the GT86, the new Supra is the re­sult of a col­lab­o­ra­tion that makes such a low-vol­ume, per­for­mance-ori­en­tated prod­uct fea­si­ble in a world gen­er­ally keener on SUVs than sports cars.4


Up ahead the Supra we’ve been chas­ing (and largely stick­ing with, un­til up­hill straights see us dropped like I’ve missed a gear) backs off and rolls into a handy layby. The Toy­ota de­vel­op­ment driver hops out, smiles and bounds round to the other side of the car, leav­ing the driver’s door invit­ingly ajar. Wide and low, the new Supra looks like it means busi­ness. Sounds like it too, a men­ac­ing bur­ble from its tailpipes be­tray­ing the 350bhp-ish tur­bocharged straight-six in the nose (BMW hard­ware, Toy­ota soft­ware, eight-speed pad­dleshift auto and BMW’s ac­tive dif­fer­en­tial, in which an e-mo­tor winds the diff’s ra­tio up and down in a heart­beat via a re­duc­tion gear, on the rear axle). It’s topped by a gor­geous dou­ble-bub­ble roof, and there’s some se­ri­ous Coke-bot­tling as the car’s flanks sweep into its rear haunches. The vi­sor-like side win­dow graph­ics and sawn-off tail lend men­ace and pres­ence to a car that’s ac­tu­ally no big­ger than a Cay­man. Men­tion the Cay­man to Tet­suya Tada and it prompts a wry smile, the en­gi­neer let­ting slip that early in the project both BMW and Toy­ota con­sid­ered a mid-en­gined plat­form. ‘Tech­ni­cally, mid­ship has the ad­van­tage over front-en­gine,’ says Tada. ‘You have more agility, you don’t have the weight and pack­ag­ing chal­lenge of the prop­shaft and so on. So from a cold, tech­ni­cal stand­point, front en­gine is not the best way. But de­spite these disad­van­tages there is a driv­ing feel­ing and

a sense of con­trol with front en­gine that is in­grained, and that most driv­ers are im­me­di­ately com­fort­able with – I think this is re­ally im­por­tant. Also, when I went to Akio Toy­oda with the idea of mid-en­gined he told me off!’

Drop­ping into the Supra and head­ing off into the first cou­ple of cor­ners, it doesn’t take long to con­cede that Tada might have a point. First up, the steer­ing is sweet: lighter than a typ­i­cal BMW set-up (which the meaty wheel rim im­me­di­ately calls to mind) and GT86-like in its re­spon­sive­ness, lin­ear­ity, con­fi­dence-swelling tac­til­ity and ab­sence of dead-ahead vague­ness. But more than that it’s the con­fi­dence you have to push pretty hard, pretty quickly that speaks vol­umes about the car’s es­sen­tial right­ness. It’s re­spon­sive but in­tu­itive, grippy but com­mu­nica­tive. And while it feels front-en­gined in its friend­li­ness, the Toy­ota doesn’t want for agility. (The en­gine’s tucked right back at the bulk­head, Lexus LC500style, mak­ing it front/mid-en­gined if we’re get­ting picky.)

Press on and you’re im­pressed by both the lack of un­der­steer and the re­sis­tance to roll; the Supra runs unique front an­tiroll-bar ge­om­e­try ver­sus the Z4, which Tada claims is key to the car’s keen front end. Like the GT86, the big­ger, heav­ier and al­to­gether more pow­er­ful Supra has re­as­sur­ing com­po­sure and clearly-com­mu­ni­cated en­thu­si­asm. It’s just that when you get back on the power, which you’re com­fort­able to do early, even on dew-damped tar­mac, this Supra’s cor­ner-exit ac­cel­er­a­tion is of a dif­fer­ent or­der of mag­ni­tude.

Ah yes, the straight-six. Tada ad­mits one or two diehard Toy­ota fans have al­ready con­tacted his depart­ment, keen to es­tab­lish whether or not they can sub­sti­tute the new car’s BMW en­gine for the leg­endary 2JZ-GTE lump, as found in the beloved A80 fourth-gen Supra. But the rest of us will be per­fectly happy with BMW’s six; more than happy, in fact.4

Fa­mil­iar from all man­ner of fast BMWs, most no­tably the livewire M140i, the en­gine feels su­perb in the Supra. After a GT86 most cars feel fast – but the Supra feels awe­some: smooth, soul­ful and blessed with both a strong midrange and an ur­gent top-end rush that has you wring­ing the thing to its red­line wher­ever the op­por­tu­nity presents it­self.

Even­tu­ally the ri­otous hill roads corkscrew back down to the val­ley floor, where we join a more pro­saic route headed for the Jarama cir­cuit. With time to look around you no­tice the BMW parts ev­ery­where, from the drive se­lec­tor to the in­fo­tain­ment dis­play. The driver’s in­stru­ments (and cute HUD) are be­spoke Supra, and if BMW’s screen and iDrive ar­chi­tec­ture stay, ex­pect a Toy­ota skin to the soft­ware. An is­sue? Hardly. If this is the price of hav­ing a proper new Toy­ota sports car where oth­er­wise the green light would never have come, then take my money.

Tada’s prag­matic. ‘It’s dif­fi­cult to build a vi­able busi­ness case for cre­at­ing the Supra alone, hence the col­lab­o­ra­tion,’ he says. ‘The Supra is a purely driver-fo­cused sports coupe, with a cabin de­signed to give the driver more room than the pas­sen­ger. The Z4 has taken a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. Dur­ing tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sions we [BMW and Toy­ota] weren’t quite talk­ing in the same way, things didn’t quite match, and I won­dered why this was. Then it struck me that we needed a clear set of ob­jec­tives. We were com­pro­mis­ing for the sake of ef­fi­ciency, and putting parts com­mon­al­ity first. The penny dropped and we re­alised we both needed to de­sign the cars we re­ally wanted to make first and fore­most, then look into the com­mon­al­ity that could help in­crease ef­fi­ciency – I re­mem­ber that mo­ment clearly. Ef­fi­ciency wasn’t at the heart of this col­lab­o­ra­tion; hence the two cars have very dif­fer­ent ap­proaches in terms of cal­i­bra­tion of en­gine soft­ware and sus­pen­sion set­tings. The two will not feel the same.’

The ob­vi­ous con­trast is in the roof, with the Toy­ota avail­able only as a coupe and the BMW as a con­vert­ible. Cer­tainly the Supra’s feels like a rigid plat­form. Tada claims a steel body stiffer even than the car­bon­fi­bre LF-A’s, a 50:50 weight dis­tri­bu­tion and a cen­tre of grav­ity lower than that of the boxer-en­gined GT86. The Supra feels right too, with nicely low-slung and sup­port­ive seats in a snug, so­phis­ti­cated cock­pit. That dou­ble-bub­ble roof gives oo­dles of head­room, while vis­i­bil­ity is pretty good given the sleek glasshouse. On the move road noise and vi­bra­tion are no­tably more ef­fec­tively sup­pressed than they are in a GT86. ‘With a more high-end car there are higher cus­tomer ex­pec­ta­tions,’ says Tada.

Cer­tainly the ride’s ad­mirably pli­ant in Nor­mal mode, the car off­set­ting its stiffly-side­walled Miche­lins with rel­a­tively small rims (19 inches front and rear), that rigid struc­ture and the sen­si­ble spring rates the car’s low cen­tre of grav­ity lets it run. (The higher your cen­tre of grav­ity, the beefier the roll bars re­quired to keep the car pinned down through cor­ners.) What’s more, Tada’s team has taken ad­van­tage of BMW’s adap­tive sus­pen­sion hard­ware, cal­i­brated to its own ride-im­prov­ing ends, to help the Supra com­bat the choppy body move­ments short-wheel­base cars can suf­fer on rough roads, the front and rear dampers work­ing se­quen­tially in pairs to keep the body flat.

It’s a long time since For­mula 1 cars graced the Jarama cir­cuit, more’s the pity, but when you start to drive its tor­tu­ous twists, turns, climbs and drops, it’s gob­s­mack­ing to think Grand Prix cars ever raced here – the 350bhp-ish Supra feels fe­ro­ciously quick; a 600bhp tur­bocharged Fer­rari 126CK doesn’t bear think­ing about.

After a cou­ple of ex­ploratory laps I switch from Nor­mal drive mode to Sport for more en­gine noise, faster shifts, weight­ier steer­ing, a firmer dam­per set-up (the adap­tive el­e­ment works on the com­pres­sion side only) and as much help as the ac­tive diff can prof­fer. As with the GT86, a sin­gle push of the VSC but­ton gives you more slack but with a safety net: hold it down for six sec­onds (on the move or sta­tion­ary) and you’ll knock the sys­tem out en­tirely.

Tada is proud of the Supra’s road bias, ex­plain­ing that


while pro­to­types in­evitably pounded the Nür­bur­gring, they also proved them­selves on the roads around it, not to men­tion on North Amer­ica’s bat­tled-scarred high­way pave­ment. As such the Supra is in its el­e­ment on the road, and leaves plenty of head­room for a track-ready GRMN Supra, which will fol­low. But it’s hardly lack­ing on track. That front-end grip again shines through, even when you think you might be tak­ing lib­er­ties, the Brembo brakes are strong and pretty tire­less (though our stints were short) and the en­gine’s re­lent­lessly bril­liant: creamy, easy to bring in smoothly, even when lat­eral grip’s al­ready be­ing tested, and with thou­sands of revs of use­ful reach.

Wind off the VSC and it be­comes clear what a sen­si­tive, mal­leable de­vice the Supra is, with nu­anced slip and grip at both axles and – pre­sum­ably as a re­sult of that short wheel­base – hap­pily trim­ming its line with very sub­tle front/rear shifts of weight. Twitchy? I wouldn’t go that far, par­tic­u­larly in the dry with a VSC safety net in place, but cold, wet cir­cuits with VSC off would be equal parts chal­leng­ing, re­ward­ing and nerve-wrack­ing. Which is the way it should be, right? After all, if you pre­fer your two-seaters a lit­tle less de­mand­ing, there’s al­ways the BMW…

Show it an open road and the Supra puts its BMWderived six to very good use

LE MANS READYnd If the rear end looks race-ready that’s be­cause it is – the Supra will race in the GTE sports car class. A hot GRMN ver­sion is also on its way.

Short wheel­base makes for superquick re­sponses

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