Toyota has proven itself capable of doing wonderful things with its borrowed BMW platform – is it time to rethink the GR Supra?
Even well before it was revealed, talk of the Toyota GR Supra’s BMW connection was rife. After its debut, no online comment thread was complete without something along the lines of ‘nice Z4, bro’, and as sigh-inducingly predictable as such responses were, those keyboard warriors had a point – here’s a car that’s far more BMW than it is Toyota.
We got the ‘G29’ BMW Z4 and Toyota GR Supra together as soon as we could, and although there were some curious differences, the two cars – lo and behold – felt awfully similar. That’s despite the Toyota getting its own springs, front lower control arms, front anti-roll bar and bespoke adaptive damper software, plus, of course, a stiffer tin-top shell.
All of this would be fine if the GR Supra had made a real impact in the sports car world, but it’s always been far from our first choice in the segment. Plus, sales haven’t exactly been stellar, even as far as coupes go. The thing is, this is far from the first time Toyota has looked to outside help to make a sportscar. We don’t have to go far back to find another example – in fact, one such vehicle has just been launched.
We’re talking about the GR86, which – like its GT86 predecessor – is made by Subaru alongside the BRZ, and powered by a burbly Subaru flat-four. And yet, I’ve never seen anyone give either of those cars a hard time for their DNA, despite the GR86 being even closer to a BRZ than the Supra is to the Z4. Perhaps it’s more to do with history – for all its AE86 references, the GT86 isn’t supposed to be a successor to the Hachiroku. The Supra, on the other hand, uses one of the most revered, spectacularly over-hyped badges in Japanese performance car lore.
Either way, I couldn’t help but be amused last month at the realisation that I was attending a Toyota event to drive what was essentially a BMW – the GR Supra – and a Subaru – the GR86. But the thing is, the Supra in question was a little different to any I’d tried before. It had a manual gearbox.
We’ve known this was coming for a while, and you’d have been forgiven for making assumptions about how it might shape up. BMW has, after all, hooked up the ‘B58’ inline-six with a stick-shifting ‘box before, so surely Toyota would just drop one of those transmissions into the GR Supra? Apparently not.
To make the Supra’s manual, Toyota collated a bunch of bits from German company ZF, ending up with something related to BMW’s transmission, but on the whole quite different. Toyota even went through several gear knob designs, settling on a hefty 200g part because it felt the best when rowing through cogs.
All that work paid off. When you slot in a new ratio in the GR Supra manual, you don’t get that mushy, slightly vague shift you tend to with a BMW manual. Nope – it slides in beautifully with a feeling of mechanical precision and a nicely short throw.
It’s up there with the most satisfying gear shifts out there right now and is also joined with a well-judged clutch action and good pedal spacing for heel-and-toe downshifting. There is an auto rev-matching feature, but unlike some other modern manual sports cars, you can easily turn it off without switching off the traction and stability controls. Are you taking notes, Porsche?
Removing one of the more meh parts of the Supra – the stock eight-speed automatic – and replacing it with something far more engaging does wonders for the car. Toyota has also had a fiddle with the chassis, and while it does seem marginally sharper, the GR Supra does still feel lardier than we’d like. Plus, that inline-six is far from BMW’s best, even though its delivery seems more dramatic with those manual shift-induced pauses.
Overall, though, the manual Supra is a huge improvement over the standard car. It shows that Toyota is willing to take the box of bits it borrowed from BMW, and do some interesting things with it, even though there isn’t really a business case, given the teeny, tiny sales volumes we’re talking about here. It’s heroic work made possible by the dude at the top – Akio Toyoda – being a proper petrolhead. This kind of thing wouldn’t fly elsewhere.
We could see further Supra derivatives, too. Don’t rule out the prospect of a Supra GRMN, but even if such a thing doesn’t come to pass, it shouldn’t matter. With the manual, Toyota has proven we really should make peace with the whole BMW thing.