Toyota’s finally won Le Mans. Now it’s readying the front-engined, rear-drive, straight-six sports car you’ve been waiting for

LOOK PAST THE white, red and black corporate race livery, the Le Mans-ready aero and – if you can – those delicious centre-lock forged racing wheels. Blank out the faintly terrifying rear diffuser, the wheelarches pulled wide by broader tracks front and rear and the full-length, turbo-cooling bonnet vents. This, the GR Supra Racing Concept, is the new Supra: an all-new, fun-focused, rear-drive Japanese sports car of a kind widely thought to be extinct – don’t you believe it.

When it arrives on UK roads next year, new Supra will serve as proof that CEO Akio Toyoda’s infectious enthusiast spirit has finally woken Toyota from its vanilla slumbers.

The Supra Saga – Remind Me

The first Supra emerged in the late ’70s as a Datsun Z-car rival: straight-six power, rear-drive, butch proportions, hairy.
Evolved through the ’80s – first with must-have pop-up headlights on the Mk2, then with the tech-heavy Mk3 – the Supra climaxed with the widely worshipped Mk4, launched in ’93. One of a golden generation of Japanese performance cars, later A80 Supras boasted some 325bhp from their 2JZ-GTE twin-turbo six. Like the rival GT-R Nissan, the motor was a robust blank canvas for tuning (both used an aluminium head on a cast-iron block and twin turbos), helping cement the A80’s hero status.

And then… nothing. As Toyota invested heavily in hybrid technol- ogy – and shifted the automotive world on its axis with the original Prius – performance cars were no longer a priority. Toyota tried to keep the faithful from tears first with 2007’s FT-HS sports car concept, then with 2014’s FT-1, a form to which the new Supra remains broadly faithful.

While a lot of time has passed since the last Supra bowed out, chief engineer Tetsuya Tada was adamant from day one that the Mk4 should inspire the Mk5; that the lineage should be explicit.

‘The new car had to have an inline-six at the front, rear-wheel-drive proportions and a stance that was instantly recognisable as Supra,’ says Tada, the man at the heart of Toyota’s Gazoo Racing performance division and its GRMN sub-brand. ‘But we had no interest in giving you a simple revival of a car from yesteryear – that’s not what we wanted.
Also, with the design, some carryover themes have emerged from the Mk4 because we wanted it to be recognisable at a glance; the wide rear [he’s not kidding], which is a sexy part of the design and an important Supra design cue.’

Back to Basics: What is New Supra?

The 2019 Supra – prototypes of which have been testing on public roads for months, and that Toyota’s effectively hiding in plain sight with the car you see here – has been developed alongside the new Z4 as part of a broader technical collaboration with BMW. The Supra will be altogether rawer, stiffer and more focused – think Porsche Cayman with the engine swapped to the front, or the car we wish the Toyota GT86 had been all along. Imagine the latter’s admirably weight-conscious, driver-focused ethos twinned with an engine sufficiently potent to chase Porsches and light up its rear tyres at every roundabout – sound fun? Of course it does.

‘When we embarked on this project the philosophy was to build a motorsports car – practicality was not really considered; it was put to one side,’ says Tada.

New Supra will launch into a market sector that, far from dying away, now boasts some sensational cars: the aforemen- tioned Cayman, Audi’s ballistic TT RS and Alpine’s deft and delicious A110. Plus of course Lotus’s still-magic Elise. Good times. But a new sports car, in a world hellbent on buying nothing but crossovers and SUVs? Has Toyota taken leave of its senses?

‘Affordable sports cars have a longer-term viability – it’s not just SUVs that are on people’s minds,’ continues Tada, who was also the man behind the GT86. Given his confi- dence in the sports car’s glittering future, might other Toyota heroes make a comeback?

TOYOTA SUPRA

> Price £50,000 (est)
> Engine 2998cc 24v twin-turbo straight-six, 350bhp, 400lb ft (est)
> Transmission Eight-speed paddleshift auto, e-dif, rear-wheel drive
> Performance 4.0sec 0-62mph, 160mph (est)
> Weight 1500kg (est)
> On sale 2019

‘Like Celica and MR2? The whole point of creating the Gazoo Racing arm [think Toyota’s M division, or Audi Sport] was to specialise in both racing and road cars, and to provide the specific financial resources to do so – it will develop future sports cars,’ he says emphatically.

What’s more, Tada doesn’t see sports cars as defunct knuckle-draggers that philosophically fly in the face of future-compatible tech like electrification and autonomous driving. Toyota’s TS050 racer, which finally broke the marque’s Le Mans duck this summer, is a hybrid, and the McLaren P1 and LaFerrari long ago quashed the notion that motors and batteries have no place in a performance car.

‘EVs and autonomous driving aren’t traditional sports car parameters, and I am frequently asked this question about new technologies,’ says Tada. ‘But Toyota doesn’t believe these things mean the end of the sports car. Technology developed in the Supra, such as the car’s artificial intelli- gence, can be used to introduce even more fun.’

Tada’s excited about the opportunities around data and the melding of the real and digital worlds, suggesting new Supra will offer something like Porsche’s laptime-trimming Track Precision app.

‘Together with data from professional drivers from Toyota’s motorsport activities, the plan is to make use of that linkage between race, rally and road cars,’ he says. ‘This data-logged information could be simultaneously distributed in real time, so you could race against Alonso on your console at the same time he’s actually in the race! ‘In relative terms this could have been done two or three years ago but now it’s at a viable cost, and the collaboration with BMW allows us to explore new ways in which technol- ogy can be used to enhance the experience of driving sports cars. Opening up this kind of data will enlist a younger generation into motorsport, and encourage them to make the leap from virtual cars into real sports cars.’

Another Toyota sports car, another collaboration With the GT86, Toyota shared development costs with Subaru; for Supra it’s doing the same with BMW. But while GT86/BRZ were virtually indistinguishable, Toyota insists Supra and Z4 share just six parts, of which two are the engine (a twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight-six) and transmission (an eight-speed auto with paddleshift, though a manual option hasn’t been ruled out).

‘It’s difficult to build a viable business case for creating the Supra alone, hence the collaboration,’ says Tada. ‘It took a long time for us to match our aims: 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.’

According to Tada, at one point both sides were forced to pause for a re-think. Neither team was happy with its version of the car, hence the move away from a GT86/BRZ-esque identical-twins approach to more fundamentally different machines with powertrain commonalities.

‘The Subaru collaboration, with GT86 and BRZ, was the starting point for this – to increase efficiency by maximising the number of shared parts,’ explains Tada. ‘But during the 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 to start with a clear set of objectives.

‘We were compromising for the sake of efficiency, and putting parts commonality first. The penny dropped and we decided first what we really wanted, then looked 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,’ continues Tada. ‘Core engine and transmission hardware are two of only a small number of shared components. The two cars will not feel the same – for the Toyota, practicality and comfort have been set aside in favour of outright agility.’ Be in no doubt: new Supra’s a balls-out sports car, a Z3 M without the weird silhouette, or the car the previous Z4 coupes (Z4 M aside) never quite managed to be. While the new Z4 will be offered as a convertible, the Toyota is a coupe, for increased structural rigidity for a given kerb weight (set to be well under 1500kg). The coupe body style is both a better fit with the Toyota’s keener dynamic set-up and the Supra’s revered bloodline.

"The Philosophy Was to Build a Motorsports Car -Practicality Was Put to One Side"

TETSUYA TADA

"The Whole Point of Our Gazoo Racing ARM is to Develop Future Sports Cars Tetsuya Tada"

TETSUYA TADA

The BMW is set to be offered with a range of engine options, from 20i and 30i versions of Munich’s turbocharged petrol four to the range-topping M40i 3.0-litre turbo straight-six. Supra will steal that same six, albeit running unique management software. Familiar from fast 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-series BMWs, it’s a sensational engine. Smooth, musical and with a searing top-end rush that’s become rare since turbocharging rose to dominance, it’ll be a sweet fit in the stiff, lean new-generation Supra, even if Toyota purists decry the motor’s Munich origins.

Reckon on 350bhp and nearly 400lb ft of torque for a 0-62mph time of around 4.0sec. (The 1520kg M140i develops 335bhp and 369lb ft and runs 0-62mph in 4.8sec; the 345bhp Cayman S manages 0-62mph in 4.4sec.)

Take no notice of the rollcage: inside new Supra The GR Supra Concept’s cockpit offers precisely zero clues as to what to expect from the production Supra’s. Fitted out as a working GTE race cockpit, with an OMP race seat and harness in a gleaming white-painted space of rollcage and exposed bodyshell, it’s pure sports car racer. Ahead of the seat sits an exquisite drilled alloy pedalbox, a central carbon control panel and an F1-style multi-function, quick-release steering wheel.

The new production Supra will prioritise the driver, ? stealing space from the passenger side to give the pilot the space to work. The evocative double-bubble roof should also give decent headroom in what is a fairly cosy cockpit, even wearing a helmet.

Supra prototypes have been seen running a BMW gear selector and iDrive-style central infotainment screen – given the complexities of making Toyota electronics talk to BMW hardware, expect them to stay.

New Supra, New Price Point

Toyota’s yet to confirm pricing, but it’s telling that Tada precedes the words ‘sports car’ with ‘affordable’ whenever he discusses Supra. The ’90s Mk4 Supra was a Nissan GT-R rival, and were the new Mk5 Supra to maintain that parity we’d be looking at a 580bhp-ish £80k Porsche 911 rival. That kind of positioning would also tally with the machines the Supra is set to battle in GTE sports car racing.

But while the Supra will be more expensive than the (£28k) GT86, its performance parity with cars like the £52k Cayman S, £51k four-cylinder Jaguar F-Type and £51k Alpine A110 Premier Edition point to a similar £50k entry fee. The Toyota also slots neatly into this class on size and road footprint. At 4380mm long (on a 2470mm wheelbase) by 1855mm wide and 1290mm high, the Supra will be broadly the same length (4379mm), width (1801mm) and height (1295mm) as a Cayman, and just 5mm shorter between the wheels (2475mm for the Porsche).

What Can We Learn About Supra From Z4?

We’ve driven prototype new Z4s on road and track and came away impressed with the BMW’s newfound agility, throttle adjustability and ride/handling balance. The electric power-assisted steering, linked as it is on the Z4 with adaptive dampers and a more compact version of the M5’s M differential, is a real star, offering easygoing GT-style progress in Comfort mode while also becoming altogether more alert, weighty and feelsome as you ramp up the drive modes. Teamed with the magic diff and adaptive dampers, the result is a deliciously responsive and agile sports car in Sport+ mode. The Z4 as a truly immersive driver’s car at last? Looks that way, especially when most everything in the class has a four-cylinder engine, even the Cayman, while the new BMW (and Supra) will pack a six.

Toyota hasn’t confirmed the type of differential in the Supra, or whether the car will use adaptive dampers. The latter certainly doesn’t tally with Tada’s ‘get it right and leave it’ philosophy, one he deployed with great success on the GT86. A conventional, passive suspension set-up and a single steering calibration roughly aligned with the most extreme of the BMW’s drive modes? Sounds promising, especially given the Supra’s stiffer platform. About the only dynamic shortcoming of the new Z4 was a shudder through the structure prompted by mid-corner bends, something the coupe-bodied Supra shouldn’t suffer with.

The future: where Supra goes from here

There are two reasons Toyota dressed the Supra up as a GTE race car. First, it teases the new car enough to create a hum without giving the game away. Second, it makes perfect sense because the Supra will race in the World Endurance Championship in the production-based GTE class. The vents, splitters and arch extensions the GR Supra concept wears are there not just as motor-show candy or camouflage but because as a race car it’ll need them, and they’ve been considered during develop- ment, as Ford did so successfully with its born-to-race GT.

The Supra will be an interesting development for the burgeoning GTE class. Hugely popular with fans for its closely fought on-track action – and with the manufacturers for the cars’ ‘race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ visual similar- ity with their halo production cars, the GTE class currently boasts entries from Ford (GT), Porsche (the mid-engined 911 RSR), Ferrari (488 GTE Evo), Aston (new Vantage) and BMW (M8).

"We Decided First What We Really Wanted, Then Looked Into The Commonality That Could Increase Efficiency"

TETSUYA TADA

"We Would Want to Introduce One (A GR Supra) and We Are Preparing For It"

TETSUYA TADA

You’ll notice that, in production form, the most affordable cars in that little lot are the 911 (£112k and 493bhp in GT3 guise) and the Aston (£121k, 503bhp). A 488 GTB will set you back almost twice as much, and let’s not even mention the Ford. Okay, let’s mention the Ford: it costs £450k.

At less than £50k and 350bhp, the Supra will need to take full advantage of GTE’s controversial Balance of Performance parity mechanism to run with such exotic rivals. The M8 GTE uses a 4.0-litre V8 to develop the necessary power, some 500bhp, but Toyota will have to turn up the wick to compete. Ford’s GT is a frontrunner with its 3.5-litre V6, and the engine’s relative economy brings a competitive advantage when races can be won and lost on pit strategy.

On the road, the Supra’s next logical development is a lighter, more focused GR version. Put that idea to Tada and he can’t stop his face lighting up. ‘We would want to introduce one, and we are preparing for it…’

Consider just how spectacularly fun-focused GR’s previous car – the hilarious Yaris GRMN – is. Pointy, adjustable, edgy and stuffed with expensive go-faster engineering no right-minded bean counter would have signed off (a super- charged engine and mechanical limited-slip diff – hence the £26k list price), the GRMN Yaris is very clearly the product of a bunch of enthusiast engineers, and beyond that a company keen to re-establish its enthusiast credentials. That same attention to detail lavished on the Supra, to create a rear- drive, Japanese Cayman GT4 rival? We’re in.


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