Toyota brings the Supra back from the dead

Paul Eisenstein
Special to The Detroit News
Toyota revives the Supra for the 2019 Detroit auto show at Cobo Center.

There aren’t many nameplates that can retain a loyal following after a two-decade absence, but of all the new products debuting at the North American International Auto Show this year, few have created nearly the buzz of the Toyota Supra.

The once-popular sports car has been out of production for 17 years and was last sold in the U.S. 21 years ago. That Supra is making a comeback at all is the result of a once-unlikely alliance between Toyota and Germany’s BMW.

In an era when sport utilities and compact utilities have come to dominate the market, sedans and coupes are in a serious decline. Sports cars make up an even more endangered species, but the Toyota/BMW partnership could show the way for other manufacturers committed to maintaining – or reviving – niche products.

We actually got a hint that Toyota would revive the Supra at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show when it unveiled the well-reviewed FT-1 concept vehicle. Then, late last winter, the Japanese automaker rolled out a track version of the Supra, with a heavily camouflaged version of the street model making an appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England over the summer.

Now we’re seeing the Supra in all its glory, and one might describe the design as retro-futuristic. Toyota designers dug deep into the brand’s heritage, among other things lifting the double-bubble roof from the old Toyota 2000 GT – which just happened to be a particular good approach to aerodynamics. But the influence of the FT-1 concept is unmistakable.

Internally, the Toyota  development team used the term “Condensed Extreme” to describe what they were going for, optimizing that concept’s wide stance and low-slung nose to give the new Supra a formidable road presence.

Working with another automaker is never easy, as Toyota learned from another joint venture, working with Subaru on the entry-priced sports car now marked as both the Toyota 86 and the Subaru BR-Z. The two products are the dictionary definition of “badge engineering,” with virtually no difference but for their brand logos. That isn’t the case with the Supra and the BMW Z4, however.

Their alliance was one of necessity. Considering the low volumes they are expecting, Toyota simply couldn’t come up with a justifiable business case without splitting costs. The same was true for BMW which nonetheless hoped to retain the roadster in its line-up.

So, under the skin, you’ll find the two vehicles sharing the same “architecture” and plenty of other componentry. But you’d be hard-pressed to know that visually. Of course, it helps that the BMW is a convertible, the Toyota a coupe.

Each of the automakers worked to ensure they would drive differently, as well, though Toyota promises that the Supra will be just as spry as the familiar Z4.

While BMW offers two engine options, the Japanese sports car will, at least for now, stick with just one powertrain. They’ll share the same 3.0-liter twin-scroll V-6, but in the Toyota version it winds up making 335 horsepower and 365 pound-feet of torque. By comparison, the BMW Z4 offers two engine options, a 255-horse 2.0-liter I-4, as well as a version of the turbo V-6 that makes 382 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque.

The 2020 Toyota Supra on display at the Detroit auto show.

Somewhat surprisingly, Toyota is expecting 0 to 60 times of around 4.1 seconds, while the more powerful BMW just manages to get there in 4.4 seconds. One contributing factor may be the heavier convertible top of the Bavarian entry, along with increased aero drag.

The project, on the Toyota side, was headed by the automaker’s Gazoo Racing team, which brought a lot of track sensibility to the effort – which also saw BMW’s vaunted M division contribute significantly. Gazoo engineers pressed for the stiffest body and platform possible.

Add a double-joint spring strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension. There are also two-mode variable dampers. As for steering, it’s both variable ratio and variable effort. Brembo brakes help scrub off speed. And 19-inch forged alloy wheels – bigger in back – shod with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires complete the picture.

How much of a market there is for the reborn sports car remains uncertain in today’s SUV-crazed market, but considering the buzz the return of the Toyota Supra has generated it’s hard to imagine it won’t connect with at least a solid niche of buyers. Price could prove critical, of course. Toyota isn’t saying much about that yet but expectations are it will start around $50,000. If that’s accurate it would undercut the Z4 with the 3.0-liter engine giving Toyota a definite advantage.