The Toyota Supra is perhaps the most unusual sports car on modern roads. Representing a badge that for decades defined the Japanese automaker’s top-tier sports car (culminating in the era-defining twin-turbo model of the ‘90s that helped launch the Fast & Furious film franchise), the resurrection of the dormant model last year should have figured in as a chance for Toyota to once again show off its engineering and design prowess. It was an opportunity to both wow the world and cash in on the heritage surrounding the Supra name, all rolled into one easily marketable package.
Instead, something very, very different happened. Rather than produce an in-house Supra solution, Toyota instead elected to outsource almost every major aspect of the coupe’s development to BMW, and then have it produced alongside the company’s same-platform Z4 roadster in Graz, Austria by Magna Steyr. Mechanically, the Supra’s beating heart hails from BMW, as does its platform and much of its interior, while Toyota retained responsibility for styling the two-door, as well as tuning its chassis and suspension details.
The net effect is a car that gives Toyota a discount on its most exciting model in years, thanks to cost-splitting with its German partner. While it might deviate dramatically from its own history, there’s no question that the current Supra is a high-level performer that brightens the brand’s showroom in a way few other vehicles have over the past 20 years.
Sports coupes like the Supra are best enjoyed on spirited roads in sparkling weather. Given that my time behind the wheel coincided with the darkest, coldest months of the year, I could only deliver one half of that equation. That’s why I decided instead to focus on an often underreported aspect of sports car ownership: what it’s like to drive a performance car day-to-day when snow is thick on the ground and temperatures scoff at concepts like traction and decorum when pulling away from a stop.
Still Sizzles on the Outside
Regardless of the mercury level, the Toyota Supra’s extroverted bodywork is hot enough to turn heads even when they’re wrapped in scarves and hoods. Also known as the “GR Supra,” the coupe quickly became an event in and of itself, one celebrated by dozens of people who stopped me in traffic or pulled up alongside to gesture their approval of my chosen chariot. The flares and arches might not be for everyone, but they make a strong connection with their intended audience and the car looks like little else currently on the road.
The interior of the Supra is a little less eye-catching. With an infotainment system lifted lock, stock and barrel from BMW, Toyota’s version of iDrive pulls its weight by way of a dash-mounted touchscreen and a convenient rotary dial on the center console. The gauge cluster is far less interesting to look at, with a central tachometer and speedo flanked by staid vertical markers for fuel and engine temperature.
You won’t find any advanced LCD displays here, nor a fancy augmented-reality navigation setup, either. No aspect of the two-person cabin comes across as anything other than functional, even in the $55,000 3.0 Premium trim version of the car I drove. It also feels tight around both driver and passenger, especially given the car’s low roof line and abbreviated glass front, rear and to the sides. With winter clothes on, the experience verges on claustrophobic, but shed that heavy coat and pom-pom hat and the Toyota’s habitat emerges as much more livable, if still just on this side of plain.
The Benefits of a Monster Motor
When it comes to the drive, there’s absolutely nothing lacking about the Supra 3.0’s sweet BMW six-cylinder engine. This turbocharged unit squeezes 382 horsepower and 368 lb-ft of torque from its 3.0-liters of displacement, which represents a healthy boost over the previous year’s output, and easily gaps the more modest entry-level turbo four in the lineup.
In a straight line the Toyota thunders forward with confidence and a throaty exhaust (taking less than four seconds to reach 60 mph), but the true measure of the German-built motor is its smooth, on-demand torque delivery in almost every situation. With the vehicle set to “Sport” mode, the throttle is sharp enough to clinically chop and deliver exactly the specified portion of thrust, with its standard eight-speed automatic transmission holding gears longer, and more intelligently, than when simply cruising. A squeeze on the Supra’s steering wheel-mounted paddles provides a quick, if somewhat less satisfying, replacement for a traditional clutch-and-row sports car, but one that is in keeping with the Toyota’s grand touring character.
All of the above requires relatively clear and dry pavement to experience at its most compelling. Unfortunately, the Pirelli Sottozero winter tires my tester was shod with weren’t up to the task of sticking to snow well enough to maintain plausible friction between the Toyota and the road below, which made for insistent intervention on the part of the Supra’s traction control system at lower speeds (and a couple of near-stuck moments negotiating the snowy alley behind my home). Low ground clearance and rear-wheel drive further contributed to my caution in selecting which slushy streets were Supra-safe.
Turn the electronic nannies off, however, and the Toyota’s personality reveals itself to be playful and predictable when parsing the most squiggly line of asphalt you can find. The mountain roads to the north of Montreal delivered the occasional moment of rock salt-induced oversteer, but by and large the Supra felt composed and controlled when asked to raise its pulse above the resting rate of the morning commute.
Although stopping short of inflaming one’s passions, the car’s approachable nature makes it easy to get into a rhythm that promotes impressive, extra-legal speed through narrow two-lane passages. Balancing that out is the extremely stiff character of the vehicle’s suspension in its Sport setting, which meant dealing with the bounce-and-whump cycle associated with potholes and frost heaves.
The Supra’s Personality Crisis
Winter sledding in the 2021 Toyota Supra 3.0 left me with a dual set of distinct impressions. Until I managed to escape the city’s confines and truly stretch the Supra’s legs, there was little about the car that compelled me to spend extra time behind the wheel. Somewhat bumpy, not at all plush, and occasionally irritating to plunge through the snow, the Supra looked great and felt quick but failed to set itself apart from any other similarly-sized sports car in terms of daily thrills.
A turn along the ring of roads that snake through Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains was all it took to add an extra dimension to the Toyota that had me appreciating it that much more. For drivers who have the access and time to explore lines on the map that do more than just feed suburbanites into office buildings each and every day, the Supra elevates above more luxury-laden tourers with back seats such as the Infiniti Q60 Red Sport or the Audi S5.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel the 2021 Supra represents a missed opportunity. Anyone familiar with modern BMW motoring will find it difficult to draw a dividing line between the Supra experience and those offered by its paterfamilias. While I can intellectually understand the profit/loss statements that lead to small-volume sports cars getting the evil eye from the accounting department, farming out the design and production of what is ostensibly Toyota’s halo vehicle is a puzzle to me.
In search of the most expedient solution, what we ended up with is a Toyota twice removed. It’s hard not to think that the Supra deserved better than relentless competence and familiar Teutonic DNA in a world of increasingly homogenous high-performance vehicles.
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