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  • Nate Kuhn

The Two Sides of the Supra

Before I get into this, I want to say that I think the Supra is a really good car. It’s just one that confused me before I ever drove it and actually confuses me even more so after. Like many, my early skepticism led from the BMW partnership announcement. I understand partnerships, cool cars are REALLY hard to make without sharing the expenses. In that respect, I am glad the current Supra exists. However in my opinion, BMW is a less than ideal partner to help create a Japanese sports car.

For the most part, the Japanese sports car EXISTS to be a reliable, less expensive alternative to European sports cars. When the platform and drivetrain comes from BMW, this car is FAR too European to really take advantage of the Japanese sports car concept. It may have the Toyota badge, but it’s not really a Japanese sports car in the conventional terms, and really loses a lot of appeal to me being fairly expensive and less appealing from a long-term ownership standpoint.

But, in an era where most manufacturers won’t sell something that is not insanely profitable, the Supra by means of BMW is far better than not existing at all. Plus, it’s a striking car and from MOST angles. While I have issues with some of the design - I personally think it’s really good looking overall. So while I knew I’d never really be too tempted to OWN one myself, I think they’re cool and love that they exist.

I thought that was where the confusion would end for me. But recently I had the chance to drive the Supra (both iterations) back to back on a racetrack, and realized that it only got more puzzling from there.

First, I took the keys to the i6 variant. For anybody who has driven this car, the first thing that immediately becomes clear is that the BMW-sourced turbocharged 6cyl engine is a MONSTER. It’s kind of ‘stupid-fast’ in terms of acceleration. Whatever extreme stats the claimed acceleration figures were for the car, I instantly believed it. The engine revs out beautifully and although the transmission occasionally disagreed with me, it seemed well enough suited for track use in this drivetrain setup. Shifts were smooth and quite fast. Of course a manual is preferred but in terms of “does this transmission ruin anything for me?” No, it’s good.

The turn-in (due to the famously short wheelbase) is equally aggressive. The car rotates dramatically and really has an agile setup that I was honestly surprised by. The hallowed MK4 Supra from the 90s got most of its reputation and affection from video games and a movie - neither of which should be used as reference for realism. The old car couldn’t dream of agility like this new Supra.

That is however, where most of my praise ends.

See the video footage below of a few laps (i6 first, then the i4 then a hot lap back in the 6). I obviously had a great time (nearly impossible to NOT have fun ripping around a track), but there were some definite issues I had with the car. It's a bit long - jump to the 15:00 min mark for the hot lap if that's what you're after.

The two main culprits that reared their ugly heads in the very first outing were the copious amount of body roll and the absolute numbness overall that the car had. The latter I was half expecting (isolation has become more and more of a virtue in BMW cars in recent years), but I was SHOCKED how much the car leaned over on itself when thrown into a hard corner.

At the (easily reached) limits of the bone-stock setup, the combination of the lightning quick steering and the softly sprung suspension would sway the whole car on it’s side. The meaty tires felt grippy, but the lack of feel the car gives makes it a guessing game. The car also likes to oversteer - something I NORMALLY love, but the issue I had over and over, was that the car couldn’t communicate when the body roll ended and the oversteer/rear slide started - so every time you initiated some oversteer it was a guessing game when it actually broke loose. Usually I had to listen for tire noise to know, and by then it could be a tad too late. It was never progressive either - short wheelbase cars break fast and somewhat violently. Combined with a clutch-pack style limited-slip differential that engaged quickly and seamlessly, It was a very fast transition from grip to letting go and it never felt like much of anything in terms of feedback, information or progressiveness to the driver.

It was a classic example of everything individually is VERY refined but the collection of parts didn’t all mesh together as well as you’d think. I.E. be careful what you wish for. Ultimate refinement isn’t necessarily better.

As the day went on, and repeated laps in the ‘big’ supra continued I got more confident and increased my pace around the track (which was becoming more and more rapid each time). I absolutely realize that if I owned the car I would probably learn it’s quirks well enough to feel comfortable on the edge, but getting there was more frustrating than enjoyable.

However, my main takeaway was that this aggressive, fast sports car was FAR more of a Grand Touring car than advertised. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely surprised me in it’s nature. This recipe being pretty similar to its predecessor the MK4 supra from the 90s which was a comfy, sport GT car that was too heavy and soft in stock form for hardcore driving as well. I am of course talking about a bone stock MK4 supra, not the 930hp one you can build in Gran Turismo or the orange 10-second Ferrari killer from the Fast and the Furious. In this respect the GT-ness of it really works, despite the sports car geometry.

Anyways, then it was on to the 4-cylinder Supra.

There are a plethora of minor differences between the two versions of the Toyota Supra. Obviously the engine is the main one. The other being lower weight and the suspension. The 6 gets adaptive suspension while the 4 is left with non-adjustable fixed rate stuff. It also gets a less fancy torsen-style rear differential than the fancy clutch pack unit the big brother does.

The other differences - mainly wheel/tire/brake options honestly didn’t make a huge impression on me in my short time in this car. It was the big differences that really set this model apart.

The weight change and suspension change are a pretty big deal. The lighter weight of the 4cyl model definitely has a better balance (as many others have claimed when they drove it). The fixed ‘lesser’ suspension seemed FAR more up to task in terms of body control than the bigger brother with the fancy adaptive hardware. The 4cyl felt more like a Toyota 86 in balance and suspension/connection to the road than the upgraded car did. I actually preferred the chassis tuning of the 4cyl vastly more in an aggressive driving situation than I expected to, given that it’s touted as the less capable machine of the two.

But this time it was the drivetrain that let it down so much. I don’t mean to say that the 4cyl Supra isn’t quick. It’s SHOCKINGLY fast. Not as rapid as the big brother of course, but not too long ago, this level of acceleration was stuff you’d have to buy a Corvette for.

It’s just the WAY it makes its power that is a huge letdown. This engine does it’s best in the midrange, which is probably great on the street but on a 15-turn road course race track it’s kind of terrible. In this guise, the 8-speed transmission absolutely fights you every moment of a lap. It ignores your downshifts (even when you’re nowhere near over-revving), and regardless of drive mode you’re in, it will upshift early when it feels like it. This led to upshifts mid-corner, or sometimes keeping me from downshifting in braking zones far too often to be enjoyable. I NEVER was able to not be thinking about the transmission and what it wasn’t doing.

The chassis may be far more behaved, but the powertrain just isn’t right for this kind of driving. Unlike the 6cyl (which has a GLORIOUS engine) the 4 just seems more like something plucked from a CUV making the school run than something that belongs in a sports car. I might have different feelings about the turbo 4 on the road, but alas I only drove it on the track. However if the engine isn’t good when you’re on a track having fun, I feel it’s a failure for this type of car.

So both Supra models were in many ways fantastic automobiles that each had their own way of letting me down in my time on track with them. Perhaps the magic combination would be the engine of the 4cyl with the suspension of the 6cyl for a road car. Soft and compliant, with good power for street driving at anything shy of a jail-worthy pace. A good, reasonably economical GT car sounds like a good thing. Then the more taught direct feel of the base suspension combined with the sledgehammer of an engine that the boosted straight six delivers for track use could be magical.

Either way, both versions let me down for reasons I was absolutely not expecting. I suppose the suspension can always be ‘solved’ in the aftermarket far easier than my gripes of the base engine, so the best play would be to buy the I6 and budget some high quality coilovers and perhaps some beefy sway bars for track use and hope that they don’t spoil the ride for the road. Maybe it'd shed some of that isolation in the process.

It just makes me curious because as it has so much more of a GT-car vibe about it, the car is not traditionally suited for such use. It’s small. I barely fit inside of it, and the luggage area isn’t what I'd call generous. You’re going to be packing somewhat lightly in the Supra. As a daily driver, it’s tricky to get in and out of (I have YET to not smack my head at the overhang the roof has over the side glass like in the video above) and hard to see out of as well. These things would be forgiven if the car was a legit sports car, but a GT needs to be better at this whole ‘passenger vehicle’ stuff.

The truth of the matter is that my opinion of a street car in stock form on a racetrack doesn’t really matter. 90% or more of owners of these things will NEVER see a track, and I have zero doubt that both work far better as road cars anyway (most things do). They’re fast, solidly built, visually striking cars either way. The build quality and materials seem terrific and their first few years of public sale suggest it could go down as both the most reliable BMW in recent memory and/or the least reliable Toyota - both completely expected given the partnership and history of the two companies but I mean it in a good way (mostly).

It really feels like BMW doesn’t really know how to make a sports car, or at least doesn't understand that a sports car should have different virtues than their other cars. They have always been wizards of making passenger cars do a pretty good sports car impression, but those always have a bit of squish built in because they’re made to go to work and function as somebody’s only car. They kind of wrote the book on that formula and while they’re SO GOOD at it, this recipe doesn’t really make for a great SPORTS CAR. That recipe involves more engagement, visceral feelings, engagement and feedback.

In the end, I had a ton of fun driving both of these cars. It’s hard to NOT enjoy lapping a hilly, twisty race track when you're not replacing tires or brake pads. It just really opened my eyes at how different the personality of the car was than I had expected when looking at the design and spec sheet. Maybe it’s the marketing or my own projection of what I personally would build in a sports car if given the reins that tricked me. Either way, it was far less endearing than I had hoped it would be for me.

You may notice the difference in my attitude between the video and this article. This is important for everyone to notice how much easier and fun things are when you are flown to Texas to drive somebody else's cars on a track all day. I noticed issues with these cars at the time, but clearly it didn't keep me from enjoying myself. However, as the dust (and tire smoke) settles - these lasting impressions really tell the tale.

I urge everyone to give these cars a try. There’s a LOT to like here, and while both fell short of sports car nirvana for me personally, I absolutely think they nailed what most people will actually want in a performance oriented road car. While my experience with it left me uninterested in ever owning one, I still love seeing them on the road (and at AutoX and track events). I hope they sell a ton. The more sports cars we get the better.

I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report - - on our YouTube channel. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.

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