The introduction of the 2020 Toyota Supra at the 2019 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) has the internet screaming in controversy. One of the most eagerly anticipated models in the history of the driving enthusiast community is about to come back on the market after 20 years… and it’s reception has been mixed – to say the least!
We’ve been sitting here since the launch wondering what to say about this. What we might have said right off the bat would, we felt, run counter to what the Supra fans have been dreaming about for the last 20 years. Except that we were wrong for not saying anything because they and everyone else have the same awkward feelings.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a short story written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. Two weavers create a new suit of clothes for the Emperor, who has been convinced by his sycophant staff that these are the most glorious set of clothes in the history of the kingdom. And when he parades around in them his subjects are too afraid to tell him that the clothes are in fact invisible… until finally one brave child points out that the Emperor is totally naked.
In the case of the new Supra, that brave child is Jack Baruth writing for Road & Track. Jack is sometimes controversial in his opinions, and he is not at all hesitant to tell them to us. But more often than not he hits the target directly in the bulls-eye. And if we hesitate, he tells us how and why he is right… and then we come to realize that he is speaking what we ourselves felt all along but were too timid to say out loud. This is definitely one of those times.
In his article “The New Toyota Supra Should Have Been an SUV“, Jack admits that his idea might be crazy, but then proceeds to give us the historical justification of why the first 4 generations of the Toyota Supra might not have been what you might think they were (we only disagree about the 4th generation Supra, which we had the pleasure of driving on track over several years and in many iterations ranging from stock to 800 HP – where each and every one we sampled were not only flawless but also indestructible). Jack says the first 3 generations were less about pure sport and more about “sports luxury”. And given the market trends of that time we would have to agree (even the Z of that age degraded into bunched leather and chrome knobs).
Why an SUV? Because in terms of any volume and in justifying a return on investment, the coupe market is dying even faster than the 4-door sedan market and neither are the place to invest. The world is changing around us whether we driving enthusiasts like it or not: an SUV would far out-sell a new Supra coupe (and could have been built by Toyota rather than by BMW) and return a much greater profit to Toyota.
Then there is the styling of the new Supra. Not a single writer has found any words of praise for it (that naked Emperor didn’t look very good either and had similarly rude protuberances to the new Supra). That Cyrano de Bergerac schnoz, those fake vents, the huge butt, all the conflicting themes – yikes. Jack goes so far as to compare the styling of the new Supra to a terrible album, “the record you put on at the end of a party, when you want everybody to go home”. Home being in this case home to an SUV.
We have to agree…. there are too many recent Toyota styling disasters, not the least of which is the new Camry with its sprinkling of bizarrely fake vents and the “otherworldly” (what else can you say?) Prius. What the heck was Toyota thinking? We would personally have been more than happy to style a new Supra for Toyota, lithe and dynamic, with power and forward grace, a worthy successor to the Supra legend – for free (asking only for living expenses in Japan)!
The Toyota reaction to this bad reception has all been defensive. Chief engineer Tetsuya Tada claimed that the vents could indeed be made functional, and in his most recent – and perhaps last ditch – defense of the Supra also claims that it is capable of a 7:40 lap at the Nürburgring. Is it? Well, show us (before BMW reveals its own times)!
And then there is the engine, the heart and soul of the Supra for its fans. A 3-liter DOHC turbocharged inline 6 producing only 335 HP – only 15 HP above the original “2JZ” engine of the Supra TT 20 years ago (granted, with considerably better emissions and mileage)! It’s just a pedestrian engine shared with the everyday BMW 3 Series: a dud of an engine for a Supra.
And unlike that 2JZ, which was said at the time to have been engineered as a detuned 500 HP monster (and may well have been because 500 HP was rediculously easy to acheive, and even 800 HP with stock internals quickly became a known science), this BMW engine has very little leeway for significant tuning above stock (take a look at the significant engineering required to remake this same engine into the M3/M4 S55B30T0 engine). Engines are very rarely designed these days to enable the same kind of horsepower tuning increases that the 2JZ engine was capable of safely handling (Nissan’s current VR38DETT engine may be the lone exception). Even Tada-san has talked about how enthusiasts might transplant a 2JZ engine into the new Supra (going to far as to recommending buying the 194 HP 4-cylinder turbo version of the Supra to save costs).
Worse, BMW’s version of this engine for its new Z4, identical except for the engine tuning maps, makes 382 HP. What does this say about the relationship between BMW and Toyota; is Toyota the “poor second cousin”?
And frankly 382 HP is still not enough for Supra fans when you can buy a 460-480 HP Mustang with an equally well-tuned suspension. The raison d’etre for the Supra is very slim indeed in this market. In fact, the market itself has evolved considerably in the last 20 years, and Toyota has simply built a successor to the last Supra of 20 years ago – not to what a Supra would have evolved into by now if it had continued in production over all these years. And why the BMW partnership? Why didn’t Toyota simply build the Supra on a Lexus platform, where a well-tuned V-8 engine is already available, sharing development costs with Lexus (and where a twin-turbo V-6, a hybrid V-8 and even a turbo 4-cylinder engine are already all in the business case)? Platform sharing in this industry is the answer to all of the financial challenges of offering a low-volume sports enthusiast product. Nissan/Infiniti does this with the 370Z/Q50 range of products (going back to the 350Z/G35), even sharing the front half of this “FM” platform as well as engine architecture with the GT-R. GM uses platform sharing for the Camaro/ATS/CTS with its “Alpha” platform, and Ford will be doing this with their newly designed “CD6” platform (Explorer and Aviator this summer, and Mustang in 2022).
Tada-san has also revealed the reasoning behind offering the new Supra only with an automatic transmission: “because it might impact the business case of the Toyota 86”.
The Toyota 86 was a joint development project with Subaru, also resulting in the clone Subaru BRZ, on an oddly engineered Subaru-developed platform (where thanks to a hack using the last-gen Impreza architecture, the engine is so far forward that there are several inches of gap between it and the firewall, resulting in a ridiculous 57% forward weight bias). And a weak 205 HP engine from 2 liters (11 HP more than the new Supra 2 liter turbo 4 cylinder, still far better than Mazda’s secretary-appropriate 181 HP, and with no chance of approaching the all-time champ S2000’s 240 HP 2 liter). Furthermore, for reasons unrevealed, Subaru hasn’t offered a turbocharged engine, even though the same engine family is offered in turbocharged form in other Subaru products (was this because of Toyota’s reticence?). Given this we have to assume that Tada-san is talking about the next generation 86 (assuming there even is one given rumors of in-fighting between Subaru and Toyota). Perhaps a new 86 will fix the platform issues and offer Subaru’s latest iteration of the STI engine as offered in the 2019 WRX STI S209: 341 HP. That rating would not only compete with the 4-cylinder Supra (not offered in the United States – and it’s not hard to guess why) but also makes 6 more HP than the Supra – and in a lighter platform. Oops!
Lastly, we can only guess at the embarrassment of Tada-san and the rest of the Toyota team when Ford introduced it’s 700+ HP Mustang Shelby GT500 at the same NAIAS show this month. Which must have been as embarrassing to his team as was the introduction of the new Ford GT would have been to the Honda team at their introduction of then new NSX at the same show a few years ago (the Ford GT has earned 99% of the press attention then and since).
Comparing press reviews and social network discussions of the GT500 and Supra introductions clearly demonstrates the very different public reception of these two new products. The GT500 is likely ~80k expensive, but – heck – even last year’s Bullitt Mustang easily out-does the new Supra and the existing GT350 obliterates it. A mere Mustang!
So where does Toyota go from here? First, get the engine retuned to match the BMW at 382 HP. Then get the updated engine from the upcoming all-new M3/M4 into the Supra as an option… even at a likely 450 HP it won’t have the raw HP number, but it will have an excellent power-to-weight ratio (and thanks to BMW, it would also be godawful expensive to offer). Perhaps with cleaned up styling there will be solid interest in the Supra… in any case, given the likely financial priorities at Toyota, all we can hope for a manual transmission and a demonstration of its alleged prowess at the Nürburgring.
And the Supra aftermarket? For a great start, get that BMW tuning map and reflash the first set of Supras to match!
Meanwhile there is the 4th-generqaiton Supra… appreciating in value to levels far above it’s original sticker price! Is this a clue as to what Toyota should have built?