President of Toyota Motor Corporation Akio Toyoda stands with the 2020 Toyota Supra on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News via AP)
DETROIT — Everyone has had one car in their life that holds a special place in their heart. For Akio Toyoda, grandson of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda, that car is the Toyota Supra, a model last seen in North America in 1998.
“Back in the day, my Supra and I spent countless hours together as I learned to become a master driver,” Toyoda told the world’s media at a press conference during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week. His fondness for the car remained, even as its manufacturing ended in other markets in 2002.
But in 2012, designers at Toyota’s Calty Design Research centre in Newport Beach, Calif., initiated a skunk-works project that resulted in a concept car called the FT-1 — one that looked like it could be the next Supra. It soon had a starring role in the Gran Turismo video game, and the next time Toyoda visited Calty, designers placed him in a simulator piloting the concept car, albeit virtually.
“I recommend this approach to any designer out there trying to get his boss to sign off on a concept car, because for me, it was game over,” he said. “At the end of the day, is there anything better than a tight rear-wheel-drive sports car?”
The result? The Supra returns for 2020 with a turbocharged double-overhead-cam inline six-cylinder engine generating 335 horsepower, enough to run 0-100 km/h in 4.1-seconds through its standard eight-speed automatic transmission.
This doesn’t typically happen with company CEOs, admits Bob Carter, executive vice-president of sales for Toyota Motor North America. “We’re a little unusual for a car company. We have a president and CEO of this company who has gasoline running through his veins.”
But there’s an asterisk, and it’s this: BMW developed the platform, powertrain and suspension; Toyota tweaked it all, adding its own settings, software and exterior styling, which owes much to the FT-1 and to a lesser extent, Toyota’s classic 2000 GT. Some longtime Supra fans have objected, saying the car isn’t truly a Supra because of its BMW genetics.
Carter defended Toyota’s sharing platforms when engineering new sports cars, a practice the company started with the rear-wheel-drive 86 sports coupe, which was initially engineered by Subaru. “The market has shifted to SUVs,” he said. “As much as we like to have these iconic vehicles, it’s very difficult to do these if you don’t have sharing for amortization.”
Jack Hollis, group vice-president for Toyota Motor North America, added that the use of key Supra ingredients, such as an inline six-cylinder engine, keeps the car true to its roots, even if it uses BMW components and is built by Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria.
“Even though it was a co-operative effort with BMW, he was the one behind the wheel all of that time at the Nurburgring and a lot of test tracks to make sure that it was that car that he wanted to bring back to life,” race car driver Scott Pruett said about Toyoda.
Pruett is advising Toyota on the new model.
But Toyoda had some help: the company’s in-house Gazoo Racing team, which didn’t start out like other teams, according to Toyoda.
“We were more like a bunch of friends who thought it would be cool to hang out together with the big boys and eat bratwurst,” Toyoda said. “Little by little, year by year, we got better and better and became a real team. In fact, in 2018, Toyota’s Gazoo Racing Division won the World Rally Championship at Le Mans. So, the new Supra was born out of this hands-on testing at the Nurburgring.”
As you’d expect, the Supra has a low centre of gravity and 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution for optimal handling. But Toyota also specified the spring and shock absorber tuning for the strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension, which makes extensive use of aluminum to save weight. An active differential controls torque distribution between the rear wheels when cornering under acceleration and braking to reduce understeer and oversteer. The Supra’s 275/35R19 rear wheels are wider than the front 255/35R19 wheels for enhanced grip, while an adjustable suspension system offers Normal and Sport settings to fine-tune the car to road conditions.
Base Supras have a 6.5-inch infotainment screen operated by the rotary knob on the console, as well as Bluetooth and iPod capability. The 3.0 Premium grade has a larger 8.8-inch touchscreen display with navigation, rotary knob, telematics services, wireless Apple CarPlay, a premium 12-speaker JBL audio system and wireless phone charging. The JBL audio system and navigation are optional on base models.
The 2020 Supra goes on sale in summer of 2019 in 3.0 and 3.0 Premium trims, as well as a Launch Edition based on the 3.0 Premium grade and wearing Toyoda’s signature etched in carbon fibre. Pricing for the Supra in Canada hasn’t been announced yet, but in the United States, it starts at US$49,990, while the Launch Edition starts at US$55,250.
Company officials expect buyers will be slightly older than their mid-30s, the age of a typical 86 buyer. “There is a large population of youth that does have money to afford these cars,” Carter said. “Where I think the opportunity exists is with European intenders.”
Hollis agrees. “I wouldn’t call it a first-time buyer, I’d call it a first-time Toyota buyer.”
Both agree that the Supra’s interest among younger buyers is a sign that Toyota’s aim of producing vehicles that are more fun to drive is resonating with consumers.
“That’s a real unique thing with this brand and with Akio,” Pruett said. “Having that guy at the head of Toyota and Lexus, and having that amount of passion in cars and for the brand, is an exciting thing that’s unique.”
Certainly, it was hard to miss Toyoda’s enthusiasm earlier this week.
“Today, the legend has returned,” he said, beaming like a proud parent just before the new model’s unveiling. “Supra is back, better than ever.”
— Tribune News Service