Toyota’s hardcore take on the Z4
Why it might be worth waiting for the coupe version
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
THE SUPRA’S BLESSED WITH BOTH A STRONG MIDRANGE AND AN URGENT TOP END RUSH
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
THE FRONT END GRIP SHINES THROUGH, EVEN WHEN YOU THINK YOU’RE TAKING LIBERTIES
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