How the Toyota Supra embraces and rejects its performance heritage

Toyota once again attempts to build a fun car.

  • Image Credit: Toyota
Today, at the Geneva Motor Show, Toyota unveiled a Supra Racing Concept that presages the forthcoming sporty road car. Finally. To say that this rollout has been glacial in its progress fails to account for the rapid withering of our Earth's glaciers in the nearly twenty years since the last Supra was sold.

The Supra is a key part of Toyota's attempt to correct its image problem among enthusiasts. Once known for Corolla GTSs, MR2s, and even Celica Group B Rally Cars, over the past few decades, the brand has privileged the construction of relentlessly reliable mobility devices, like the bestselling RAV4, Corolla, and Camry. This wasn't a bad business decision, since these three vehicles alone combined to sell more than 1.2 million units in 2017, representing an astonishing 7 percent of totalAmerican vehicle sales.

However, we're enthusiasts, so we like enthusiast cars. Toyota's one current sporty entry, the 86, is in its stable only because its youth-oriented "tuner" sub-brand, Scion, had to be, well, 86'ed, for lack of interest from young tuners. Any other semblance of sport among the brand has been shunted to its luxury division, Lexus, which has succeeded in creating some actual enthusiasm with vehicles like the LC500.

If a language, like Yiddish, or a trade, like typesetting, goes out of practice for just a generation, it can nearly go extinct. So, after almost two decades of seemingly lying fallow, how has Toyota reanimated its commitment to speed, fun, and handling?

"We launched a new brand, GR, strongly linked to motor sports and the link between motor sports and production cars," says Tada-san, chief engineer on the project. "This first race car shows that concept."

In reviving any long-buried nameplate, design is always a key consideration, weighing the relevance of calling back to a storied heritage — in this case, the four previous generations of Supra — with the need to create a vehicle that seen as contemporary and forward thinking. This is especially true when a brand has abandoned a vehicle segment, like Toyota has with performance cars, for so long. Even more so when it will have only one offering in the category. There is a lot of pressure on this car to speak to the past, the present, and the future.

"As we started, we made sure to listen to the Supra fan base in the U.S.," says Tada-san. "So certain heritage elements are very relevant. But from a design perspective, this is not a vital area for heritage. This is not a revival model. That's not what we intended to do."

If the brand is trying to stake out all-new space with its design, it is definitely calling back to its past in its engineering. Throughout their lifespan, Supras have always been powered by straight-six gasoline motors. But since Toyota hasn't built one of these in at least ten years, they partnered up in product development with a brand known for them, BMW. The new twin-turbo I6 in the Supra will be shared with the next-generation Z4.

"The front engine/rear-drive configuration and the straight-six turbo engine are necessities for any Supra," says Tada-san. "The cars must be fun to drive and have an ease of maneuverability."

Smooth running and smooth looking. We are rooting for the new Supra, regardless of how much we believe it should be offered with a manual transmission, though it won't.

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