“To be or not to be, that is the question.” Shakespearian lucubrations do come into your mind when driving the new A90 Supra. Mind you, the ongoing debate on whether it’s a BMW or Toyota have not yet been taken to theaters worldwide, but have caused some heated debate among enthusiasts. So, the question is: is this a true Supra or just a rebadged Z4?
Perhaps one of the (intentionally?) worst kept secrets of the automotive world of the last 3 years has been the joint venture between BMW and Toyota, who jointly developed the new Mk5 Supra. This fact alone was enough to cause more than just a mild outcry from purists. In all effect, the new generation, namely is the one that has the most difficult job of all past the Supra generations: it has to carry the weight of a legend and as you would imagine, those who came after one are always loathed. While the earlier Supra generations didn’t cause too much of a sensation because were regarded as too heavy and not very powerful, all begun to change with the early Turbo offerings on the A70 (or Mk3), which used the 7M GTE and JZA70 engines. These got many genuinely interested in the Supra, like it never happened before: brute power was available and tuners begun to extract crazy amounts of power from them. However, the Suprevolution started with the new A80 (or Mk4) in 1993. The new 2JZ straight six, using whole new engine-block design and a new turbocharging system, it turned the Supra into THE Supra we all know and love.
The A80 its twin-turbo form (engine code GTE), it was one of the most complete and captivating sports cars you could by and with a power output that could compete easily against more expensive and exotic cars. However, it wasn’t until 2001 that the Supra was truly etched into the legend with the film Fast and Furious: Paul Walker’s scene battling Vin Diesel’s Dodge Charger started a revolution and created a new cult following. Contrarily of popular belief, the A80 wasn’t a huge sales success and was pulled out from the Canadian and American market in 1996 and 1998 respectively. The decline in sportscars sales of the late 90ies also forced Honda to pull the plug on the A80 in 2002, one year after Fast and Furious was released. However, just like the almighty R34 GT-R the Supra became a cult car, with a strong following of enthusiasts who loved to modify and race it. Perhaps, its name is best paired with Turbo and 1000 hp: these facts were enough for an entire generation of petrolheads to love it more than supercars. For years, low prices for second-hand examples paired with the strength of the 2JZ engine, able to withstand more power than it was imaginable, made it the perfect tuner’s car.
However…what many people don’t realize is that the Supra was conceived from the start to be a luxurious GT rather than a ferocious and all-out street hooligan. Yes, ladies and gentlemen: refinement and excellence were key words instead of brutality and power. In 1993, the A80 represented for Toyota the coronation of more than a decade of development and research of pure finesse rather than just track performance. Don’t forget that initially the name Supra was paired to the range-topping variant of the Celica, indicating a more powerful and refined variant than the normal car. It wasn’t until 1986 that the Supra begun to be identified as a model with its own identity and personality.
With the A80 Toyota had a desperate need to show the world what they could do: The new 2JZ-GTE engine had sequential twin-turbos and was able to deliver 326 bhp at 5600 rpm with 90% of the 325 lb ft of torque available right from 1300 rpm to a maximum range of 4500 rpm from stock. Leather interior with electric seats, air conditioning and AM/FM radio, plus the removable targa top made it more of a capable and flexible GT. Its sub-5 second 0-100 time and electronically limited top speed of 250 kph truly made it stand out of the crowd of “non-exotic” motorcars of its day. A 6 speed gearbox (a first for Toyota) made by Getrag, a torsen rear differential and a traction control made the Supra a car able to offer more than expected.
Despite all this, journalists of the time didn’t deem it the perfect car to quench your thirst for a touge session up your favorite road as it was heavy and with a mindset aimed at high speed comfort rather than outright cornering. Its performance sure caused a stir and could truly compete against Honda’s NSX, Porsche’s 968 and most 911’s but still the Supra remained a good alternative to more expensive and unattainable sport cars. The cult status it obtained after it went out of production left many wondering whether Toyota would bring it back and resume production.
The first speculations of a potential Supra’s comeback happened in 2007, when Toyota unveiled the FT-HS prototype, a hybrid-powered coupé. Sure this was enough to trigger the nostalgia of many enthusiasts but that was a lone case which didn’t have any following.
However in 2014 all changed. The new FT-1 prototype, a gorgeous looking bright red concept made its public appearance at the North American Auto Show, causing a very high interest. Designed in California, it was the announcement Supra lovers wanted for more than 12 years: the legend was coming back to life. In 2018, the GR Supra Racing Concept was unveiled, pretty much around the same time when BMW presented the new G29 Z4.
So, this brings to our main question: what is this car? If you’re looking to buy one in order to feel the spirit of the Rising Sun well you’re in for a disappointment. It’s assembled in Austria and has never seen Japan. The only Japanese things present on it are its name and the styling: is this enough to label it as a “fake” modern Jdm? In our view… no. Sure, this will make it feel less… exotic to its audience, but this doesn’t mean it’s not a good driver’s car.
So…what is it then? To find out, we took out one of the first examples to come to Italy for a reflexive drive through the Colli Lessini, an area wide and quiet enough to provide some peace of mind much needed in a moment when everyone is debating heavily the Supra argument. So, with an open heart and mind, we put the new A90 to test in a gorgeous day: empty roads, a wonderful breeze and new tarmac provided enough zen energy to trying solve this question.
To start with, the new Supra is as flexible and enjoyable to drive as its predecessor. On the highway, it feels low stressed and the sensation is to be travelling at almost half of your actual speed. 150kph feel like 90 and the only noises coming inside the cabin are the tire roar and a very mild wind buffeting.. Power is available on tap with a very smooth and consistent delivery and it is matched perfectly by the 8 speed automatic gearbox. Ride comfort is great thanks to a perfect damping set-up and suspension geometry capable of ironing out most bumps on the road. Steering is direct, well-calibrated and rich in feel, offering great feedback in any conditions. So, no problems then: the A90 excels almost as much as its predecessor, and offers great “executive type” grand touring in a quite attractive package. It does maintain the old A80 character which is a great thing: as a sports-daily it would be a good choice for anyone looking to buy something practical and bound to a legendary name.
Cruising matter aside, the most important question is: how does it drive through the corners? We truly believe that this is where the core of the Toyota/BMW debate really lies. First and foremost, the A90 has better rigidity than the almighty Lexus LFA, something that wasn’t said for the Z4 (maybe for obvious reasons). Toyota engineers worked hard in strengthening the structure and lowering (even more than the GT86!) the centre of gravity for better handling. Supra’s Chief engineer Tetsuya Tada sure made a great job in perfecting the dynamic nature of the car and the result is tangible: the perfect 50-50 weight distribution ensuring impeccable dynamics, a neutral handling and a very rewarding experience. Do not try to be a hooligan and drive the car as it was intended: drive it as cleanly and precisely as you can, taking advantage of the car’s forgiving nature. The new Supra has been engineered with the golden ratio, meaning that its relation between the track and the wheelbase measures is 1,60, close to the absolute 1,55. This explains why it retains such a balanced and precise nature, rewarding those drivers who privilege smooth inputs over rougher ones.
It’s a pure GT and it works best when kept within the torque range, and not close to the redline. It’s a car with which you can build up a fast pace on a two lane road, just like the one we were on. It dances through the corners, offering immense levels of grip: leave it in a higher gear than what you would normally use and it rockets out of the corner with precision and composure. 340 hp feel well balanced and ideal with the geometry of the A90: BMW’s B58B30 twin-turbo straight six is silky smooth in its delivery, although is able to provide enough grunt to make the Supra feel alive. With immense levels of grip means that it is prone to a snap-oversteer which could be difficult to control to less experienced drivers. Yet, to unstick it from the road you truly have to put a lot of effort.
The interior ambient is cozy and very intimate, providing an excellent view out and good storage space also accessible from the inside of the cockpit. Plenty of BMW switchgear is present, including the infotainment system and this might be annoying to many, but in the end, it works extremely well.
The roads of Lessinia are inspiring and provide a window to see the truth under every aspect: rebadged Z4? Probably, but with the whole new set-up, the Supra manages to have its own identity and to come out as a very enjoyable GT. Sure tough, it would have been great to have seen what the Japanese themselves would have done without BMW. Perhaps an evolution of the 2JZ would have been fantastic to see and witness maybe paired to that dose of engineering genius and cost effective strategy that has made many Japanese cars true legends. Perhaps one of the major challenges faced by the engineering team was to develop a car which was the spiritual successor of the original A80 also giving room to tuners to extract even more performance out of it. This explains why it has the current performance and character: there’s a feeling that it’s a blank canvass, where tuners will be able to do whatever they want.
As a matter of fact, the new Supra allows a margin as it features holes and spaces for strut bars and the ability to take out the fake air vents to make them work. As the Japanese say, “a fallen cherry blossom will never return to the tree” and so it is with re-makes: they’re great to drive but people will always look into the name to retrieve past emotions, with the burning desire to see them living again in the present. The new Supra made us nostalgic and made us remember our days as car-crazy teens, where turbo noises and craziness were all we wanted in a car. The fact that it is not coming directly from Japan will truly impact the community: just look at the GT86 and R35 GT-R’s and you’ll see many people turning them in true touge warriors, and you’ll find yourself asking if this will happen to the A90 as well.
Nevermind: the new Supra is a great car under every way and represents a choice for those who want a balanced and well equilibrated sports car. It’s very japanese in its temperament and much of the criticism referring to its BMW nature could be a more direct and harsh way of criticizing the lack of a true Japanese identity. Nonetheless… this car will remain as a great example of balance and true Japanese automotive taste and savoir faire regardless of criticism.
Thanks to Bonera Group