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Why People Don't Like the New Toyota GR Supra

The Drive logoThe Drive 1/17/2019 James Gilboy
a close up of a car© Toyota

After more than two decades' absence in North America, the Toyota Supra is back. In case you were wondering, its imminent arrival has caused a bit of an uproar.

It's now called the GR Supra, and it rides on a platform jointly developed by Toyota and BMW, which uses the chassis for its modernized Z4 roadster. The two cars share an eight-speed automatic transmission and a selection of turbocharged engines, including a 3.0-liter, twin-turbo straight six that boasts 335 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. This Supra is lighter, more powerful, and stiffer than its predecessor.

But for some people, that's just not good enough.

Making the mistake of reading the comments section on any article about the GR Supra, also called the Mk.5, will give the impression that half the internet is ready to behead its lead engineer, Tetsuya Tada, and the man who gave him that title, Toyota president Akio Toyoda. Everything about the Mk.5 incenses people, from the location of its timing chain to the galling existence of its fraternal BMW twin.

It's worth understanding what sort of gripes the public has with the Mk.5, but before we examine them, we need to look closely at the legendary predecessor, the Mk.4.

1993

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The fourth generation of Toyota Supra reaches American showrooms and the waiting hands of the automotive press. Car magazines across America praise the Supra Turbo for its acceleration, skidpad performance, and anti-lock brakes so ridiculously effective the Supra sets 70 mph stopping distance records that won't be beaten until the Porsche Carrera GT comes out nearly a decade later.

But buyers sleep on the Supra. Its 3.0-liter engine doesn't please American consumers who've been spoiled by three decades of cheap displacement. They also turn their noses at the Supra Turbo's unsightly inboard headlights. The $39,900 sticker in its window is unthinkable. Toyota moves just 2,901 cars.

1996

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Newly mandatory OBD II systems force Toyota to re-engineer the Supra, inflating the model's cost to its high watermark of $38,600. Net effect: the naturally aspirated 1996 Supra costs as much as a 1993 Supra Turbo's MSRP, which in 1996 soars to $50,400. Toyota sells just 852 Supras in '96, and at this point has yet to sell 10,000 Supras in the United States.

Meanwhile, even in its 13th and final year, the comparable-yet-grandfatherly Chevrolet Corvette C4 outsells the high-tech, pricey Supra by 21:1.

1998

a red car parked in a parking lot© Tokumeigakarinoaoshima, Wikimedia Commons

While sales recovered some in the following years, Toyota can't help but notice the Supra's sickly sales trend. Rather than let the Supra suffer further, Toyota walks the car out back behind the dealership, and returns alone.

By the time dealer stocks of the Supra deplete early the following year, sales of the Mk.4 Supra in the United States total barely 12,000. Buyers weren't willing to pay what the Supra cost, no matter how miraculous its performance, or advanced its powertrain. Small enclaves in the racing and enthusiast community came to understand that the Supra Turbo's 2JZ-GTE was capable of containing colossal amounts of boost, but outside of these circles, the collective memory of the Supra faded until all that remained was the vague notion of a well-built grand tourer that cost too much money.

2000

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One of a handful of people in the Americas aware of the Supra's potential in 2000 was National Import Racing Association director Craig Lieberman. As recounted in a podcast in 2015, Lieberman was accompanying his personal Supra Turbo—modified to 600 horsepower with a single Garrett T66 and nitrous oxide—at an imported car show when he was approached by a man who ended up asking him for consultation on a film about street racing.

The movie was called Redline, and it featured a character named Officer Brian O'Conner in a now-familiar plot about street racing and big-rig heists. Officer O'Conner loses a car to Dominic Toretto in a high-stakes street race, and then has to replace the car when a gang sets it on fire. In the original script, it was a Supra that became a smoldering wreck, which O'Conner replaced with a Nissan 240SX that concealed an RB-series straight six under the hood.

2001

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Redline was renamed The Fast and the Furious before it hit theaters, and with the name change came changes to the script. The swapped 240SX found itself out of a job because the producers realized it'd be hard to pull Vince off the truck and through the car's sunroof in the film's climactic scene. They needed a car with a targa top and credibility as a performance car. The Supra ticked that box.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Fast and the Furious was the highest-grossing film of 2001, but more importantly, it was a landmark film for car culture. It blew the lid off the import tuning scene, convincing moviegoers that the Honda Civic in which they carpooled to the premiere was a race car underneath—single overhead cam be damned.

Because of its role in the film, the Supra and its 2JZ became household names, symbolic to the exploding import tuning scene. What was once a grand tourer that couldn't sell in its lifetime what the Corvette could in a year was now seen as a nine-second drag car, one capable of embarrassing a Ferrari F355 Spider, and matching a Dodge Charger withso much torque, the chassis twisted coming off the line.

But the Toyota Supra paid the price of fame. The Fast and the Furious made the Mk.4 Supra out to be a one-trick pony, valuing only the 2JZ-GTE's ability to make power with its cast-iron block, glossing over its superb braking distances, skidpad numbers, and ride. What was arguably its cheapest trick grew to be its most popular feature, like a songwriter whose toss-off pop single hits number one while his brilliant back catalog remains unheard. If the Mk.4 Supra was a musician, it'd be M83; if the 2JZ-GTE were a song, it'd be "Midnight City."

Fantasy Versus Reality

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As its popularity before and after The Fast and the Furious demonstrates, most of the Toyota Supra's modern following came from the film. As a consequence, much of the following only appreciates the Mk.4 Supra for its tuning-friendly engine, and not for every other reason that made for glowing reviews in 1993.

This isn't to denigrate Fast fans. The way by which people discover a love for something does not diminish the love itself—provided that love grows. A real Supra fan grew to appreciate its other generations, its interior design, or motorsport heritage (outside of drag racing). But are those to whom the Supra is just a ten-second car—an application of the 2JZ-GTE—real fans? If you only love an idealized image of something, do you actually love the thing?

Speaking of the thing, what did the Mk.4 Supra mean to the entity that knew it best, Toyota itself?

Truth in Advertising

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Toyota's view of the Mk.4 Supra is exemplified by how it tried to coax customers into the car, using ads like the one above. The powertrain matters, and it gets attention, but selling a GT car on its engine alone has never been effective—the rest of the car has to measure up, has to be as good, if not better. Toyota knows this, and invested just as much time into engineering the rest of the car as it did the engine.

Because the engine is but a fraction of what the Supra means to Toyota, its associated mythos can only matter just so much. Ten-second Supras were not Toyota's doing; they are the product of performance shops and race teams, not the production lines of its Motomachi factory. It's not a legacy Toyota feels it has to live up to.

2020 Toyota GR Supra

a close up of a car© Toyota

Given the chance to add another chapter to the Supra story, then, why wouldn't Toyota pick up where it felt it left off—by building a successor to the car it remembered, and the car the world forgot?

It's only fair that we do as our predecessors did a generation ago in the Mk.4's era, and take the Mk.5 on its own terms. This isn't to say there aren't valid initial criticisms of the Mk.5, but let these pertain the upcoming car. Not the past model, and certainly not the movie car.

Five of the biggest points of contention have been picked out for examination: the styling, price, and pieces shared with the Mk.5's BMW sister, which include the transmission, engine, and chassis.

The Transmission

a red and black motorcycle© Toyota

Just one transmission will be available for the Mk.5 at launch: a ZF eight-speed automatic, shifted via paddles. Going automatic-only carries with it the performance benefits of faster shifts and better ratios.

But for many enthusiasts, rowing gears is a requisite when it comes to enjoying a drive, and any automatic—no matter how performance-built—is unforgivable. Toyota knows this, and waffled to the public at length about putting a manual box in the Supra. Admitting that the engineering has been done and that the hardware is there but declining to offer it as an option—even in tiny numbers at an inflated price—is dumbfounding.

There may be the possibility that Toyota plans to do just that, and is squatting on the manual for use in a possible track-oriented GRMN Supra down the line, but restricting relatively low-cost manual transmissions to expensive, limited-edition models wouldn't sit well with customers otherwise in line for such a car, nor would it make much sense from a business perspective. Developing a manual version and choosing to go automatic-only feels like a decision made in the name of cost-cutting.

Given how much involvement Supra super fan Akio Toyoda had in the Mk.5's development, you can't help but wonder: which side of the transmission debate does Mr. Toyoda stand on? The lap time-loving automatic camp, or the manual hardliners, beating the drum of driver engagement?

The Engine

a car engine© BMW

Another of the major components shared between the BMW Z4 and Toyota GR Supra is the most powerful engine compatible with the chassis: a 3.0-liter, twin-turbo inline-six making 335 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Its name is the B58B30O1, but it insists on the more casual B58.

A rear-mounted timing chain will be a worry for high-mileage Mk.5s, which will need the engine removed to service this assembly. Anecdotes of early turbocharger deaths are dotted around the internet, but the complaint doesn't appear with any consistency in Bimmerpost's dedicated B58 problems thread. More worrying are stories of engines going into limp mode after full-throttle sprints, though some evidence points to this being a safeguard against lean conditions caused by near-empty fuel tanks, or low-quality aftermarket tunes, which crank up the boost so high the injectors fall behind.

Most of the problems that do seem common with B58s are trivial, like squeaky tensioners, or rough idles on cold starts. Of course, these grievances technically apply only to past versions of the B58—the B58B30O1 used in the Supra and Z4 is a variant so far unique to these two models. There'll be plenty of architecture shared between the old and new engines, but the B58B30O1 itself doesn't yet have a reliability record to judge.

As for performance, the B58 churns out more power than the 2JZ-GTE ever did from the factory. States-spec Supras of yore made 320 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque, or 15 and 54 short of the B58's specs. It's no cast-iron 2JZ-GTE, but the B58's block is of a closed-deck design, which bodes well for tuning potential on factory parts. Closed-deck designs can have cooling issues when running under load for long periods, but only if the engine has a poorly-developed cooling system. We doubt that's the case with the B58.

Toyota knows that the B58-powered Mk.5 won't satisfy all the Supra's fans, and it designed the car knowing full well that 2JZ-GTE swaps will be performed. Chief Supra engineer Tetsuya Tada himself begs those planning said swap to buy the cheaper four-cylinder model.

The Chassis

a car driving on a road© BMW

The single largest Bavarian-blooded component of the Mk.5 is its chassis, which was developed since the start to be shared between the Toyota GR Supra and BMW Z4. Many are critical of the Mk.5 on this basis alone, dismissing it as a rebadged Z4.

It's a strange criticism of a company with a history of outsourcing plenty of its best work (the 2JZ-GTE was heavily influenced by Yamaha). When the acclaimed 86 arrived on the scene earlier this decade, nobody moaned that the platform was half Subaru's handiwork (though admittedly the same can't be said for the engine), yet when Toyota does the same with the Supra, there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.

If what Tetsuya Tada and Toyota say about the platform is true, there should be no cause for alarm. Toyota says that the Supra's chassis is stiffer than the Lexus LF-A's was, despite using steel and aluminum, not carbon fiber. It boasts a lower center of gravity than the 86 despite using an inline instead of a flat engine, and 50-50 weight distribution, making the Mk.5 more balanced than the turbo Mk.4 with its 53-47 weight distribution. B58 models of the Mk.5 are estimated to come in at 3,351 pounds, or approximately 200 pounds lighter than a middleweight Mk.4 turbo.

Independent testing of the Supra's sister, the Z4 M40i, has shown all this to be good for a Nürburgring lap time six seconds quicker than the more powerful M2, if still around nine slower than Toyota's benchmark, the Porsche 718 Cayman. We have yet to see the Supra run the 'Ring, but with the rigidity added by its fixed roof, along with its improved aerodynamics, the Supra should be faster still. Not bad for a car that was technically a grand tourer—not a sports car—in its last incarnation.

The Looks

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Reception for the FT-1 concept that informed the Mk.5's design was overwhelmingly positive, and the production car has kept almost all its concept's design flair. Nevertheless, there are those that seem surprised by the design changes between the concept and final product, as if the auto industry hasn't for decades tamed its concepts between show floor and showroom. Of course the production car is narrower and re-proportioned; it has crash structures and compromises with BMW to accommodate.

But as for the GR Supra itself, it's not a bad-looking car in the slightest. Intakes and vents are everywhere, as are compound curves that surely made the body's CAD designer groan. It kept the concept car's headlights, has double-bubble roof hearkens back to that of the 2000GT, and boasts a ducktail grand enough to make Donald feel inadequate. The longtime signature nose of Toyota's cars is present and unashamed at its prominence, and has made me take notice of the trait in every other Toyota.

Its looks are, in my book, a step up from the Mk.4, whose inboard headlights remind me of a flounder on wheels—I know I'm not the only one who sees it.

a close up of an animal© Disney

The Price

a close up of a car© Toyota

If anything, the price seems like the least appropriate to criticize the Mk.5 Supra. Toyota hasn't declared its full pricing scheme, but entry-level models with four-cylinder engines will start at $49,990.

A Supra being Corvette money should be no surprise to anyone. Paying the better half of six figures for a four-cylinder sports car would sound like madness had Toyota not chosen a car that has been playing that game since 2016—the Porsche 718 Cayman—as its benchmark. Likewise, Mk.5 prices contextualized against Mk.4 prices adjusted for inflation makes the new car look something of a bargain.

At launch in 1993, naturally aspirated Supras came in at $33,900, which adjusted for inflation is $58,900 today, nearly $9,000 more. Turbo models were $39,900 in 1993, or $69,300 in modern money—I'd be surprised to see Toyota ask that much for the cheapest B58 car. Mk.4 prices got uglier than that, though; 1996 Supra Turbos started at a price equivalent to $80,600 today.

The Badge

© Toyota

Okay, this isn't a common point of contention, but you can't help but wonder if the Toyota GR Supra will sell—just by virtue of its name.

Not the Supra name, of course. It has been a generation since the last Supra was new, meaning the inescapable 90s Supra scripting weathered its awkward years in hibernation, and now just comes across as retro instead of dated. Nor the GR part, which is short for Gazoo Racing. Word was that the adoption of the GR brand was highly controversial within Toyota's management, with many hating the name, but I happen to like it. There have been far more unsexy race team names put on race cars to the delight of their drivers (yours truly has a Force India sticker on his car).

If anything, the problem with the Toyota GR Supra is the first word of its name: Toyota. Had a car identical to the old Supra been badged as a Porsche 9-something-something, it probably would have sold enough to maintain its place on the market for longer than the Mk.4 did. It was a lot of money to ask for a car whose badge was less prestigious—or pretentious, both being sides of the same coin—than many cars in its price range, and the same can be said today of the Mk.5. Its Toyota badge won't impress people at the country club, but the GR Supra's styling is too exotic to discourage stoplight panhandlers from trying to make eye contact with its driver.

Seemingly Toyota's only hope to sell the Supra is by virtue of its driving experience alone, and everything so far points to that being pretty good. But for the Mk.5's merits to shine through, people will have to give the GR Supra a chance, and that's something that it doesn't look like it'll get. Toyota runs the risk of watching the Mk.5 die the same slow death as the Mk.4, the car-buying public at large unwilling to give it the time of day, let alone show up for a test drive.

But that doesn't seem to concern Toyota. If anything, it looks like one of the world's biggest automakers has dedicated its wealth of resources and manpower to reviving the Supra for just one man: Akio Toyoda himself.

"Back in the day, I spent countless hours driving an old Supra at Nürburgring to become a master driver. Supra is like an old friend that holds a special place in my heart," reminisced Toyoda. "While other manufacturers were putting their beautiful new prototypes which they were going to introduce through the paces, I was driving an old Supra that was no longer in production."

"So even though Toyota had no plans to make a new Supra, just like a lot of other die hard Supra fans around the world, I secretly wanted to make it happen. The new GR Supra was born through testing at Nurburgring, and I can honestly say that it is a car that is fun to drive and better than ever."

If Akio Toyoda—whose Supra fandom is as unquestionable as they come, and for whom the Mk.5 was seemingly created—gives the GR Supra his blessing, it surely can't be that bad. Even if Toyota fails to sell even one car, you can't help but at least feel glad knowing that Mr. Toyoda will be out driving his, with a maniacal grin spread across his face.
 

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