Put fifteen grand into it and make a monster. Overnight parts from Japan, if you have to. Ask ’em the retail, then blow their doors off. You know the drill: in the pantheon of import speed gods, there’s the Toyota Supra, and there’s everybody else. It’s Zeus with sequential twin-turbos.
But as rumors swirl about a reborn Supra, midwifed by both BMW and Toyota, what if the acolytes had it wrong? We’re nearly two decades removed from a time when Toyota’s pinnacle of performance last graced a dealer forecourt, and fifteen years from the NOS-injected silliness that made the car a household name. What if the Supra was all Vin and no Diesel?
To see if the legend is just that, a legend and no more, I’ve set up a rendezvous with a mostly-stock 1997 Toyota Supra and a serpentine coastal stretch of highway. The car belongs to Cole Montagano, who located it after a lengthy search in Arizona, and has faithfully brought it back to a recollection of its former splendor.
Like many giants of the import age, this Supra had a couple of careful previous owners and at least one ham-handed idiot. Montagano’s rescue operation involved a near complete engine and suspension teardown, and replacement of every seal, including rebuilding the turbos. Just twenty-two, he nonetheless performed the bulk of the work himself, and is more interested in OEM accuracy than bolt-on upgrades.
Thus, his Supra is about as true as you’re going to find to the factory’s original intent. A little more boost and a discreet replacement intercooler mean that power levels are slightly raised above stock, but nearly everything else is factory-spec.
By the standard of today’s robot-baleen-whale Lexuses, the last Supra is a fairly reserved-looking proposition. Yes, it’s got a large, functional wing, but the overall car resembles nothing so much as a beefier SC400.
From the driver’s seat, the eye fixes on the major instrumentation – speedometer, center-mounted tachometer, fuel and coolant temperature – but the rest looks a bit of a jumble. In our first drive of this car, we noted that, “It seems almost unfinished, as though the interior styling guys just ran out of time.” It’s still miles better than a contemporary third-generation RX-7.
Steering is very light, almost Camry-light, but with better feedback. The shifter engagement is similarly low-effort. The six-speed Getrag is legendarily capable of handling huge power, but is never heavy. Grip is massive, but the car rolls slightly in a corner to take a set. A sporting 2+2 it may be, but the Supra has the feel of a proper grand tourer.
Montagano’s longest day in this car, driving it up from the desert, was from 6am to 11pm, and he reports no ill effects. Over my shorter stint, the Supra felt like it wanted to drive straight to Los Angeles and split a bucket of Coronas with Dom and Brian. At highway speeds, it has the composed, effortless nature you’d expect from the engineers who’d just cranked out the Lexus LS400.
Legends aren’t built on comfort, they’re built on blood. Turn your attention to the Supra’s hardened heart, a 3.0L straight-six with forged rotating assembly, iron block, twin sequential turbos, and double overhead cams. In Toyota fan-boy shorthand it’s the 2JZ-GTE, and its ability to handle cranked-up boost levels is what has F355 Spider owners everywhere trembling in their designer jeans.
In Japan, turbocharged versions of the 2JZ made 276hp, as per the Japanese manufacturers’ so-called “gentleman’s agreement” limiting horsepower. When the car arrived in North America in 1993, Toyota appeared to recognize that gentlemen were in short supply, so it installed reworked turbos and larger injectors to take power to 320 hp at 5600 rpm and 315 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. Further, it appears now as though these numbers were somewhat underrated.
Here’s how the sequential turbocharging works. Initially, all exhaust gases are fed to the smaller first turbine, allowing for better low-range response. Most of the Supra’s turbocharged torque is available from as low as 2000 rpm, making it tractable in daily driving.
At a time when the Aston Martin V12 Vantage had a 420 hp V12, even a lightly-tuned Supra would have kept pace with some of the world’s best grand tourers. And in the Toyota, you’d be far more likely to end your tour at the hotel rather than on a flat-bed truck.
While Supra fans are quick to poke fun at the tendency for highly modified cars to urinate coolant from time to time (or worse), the 2JZ-GTE is notoriously tough. More than doubling the power output through added boost from a single turbo setup requires no additional strengthening of the bottom end. Thousand-plus horsepower builds require more considerably more serious investment, and any overlooked weaknesses will make them pop. Still, it’s within the realm of possibility to have Veyron power on a new Lexus RC350 budget. Save your money by switching from steak to tuna sandwiches, no crust.
Further, let’s talk about how sturdy the Supra Turbo is when you don’t mess with it. A call to Bill MacEachern of Toronto, owner of probably the highest mileage Porsche 930 in the world, fleshes out the Supra’s legendary durability with real-world example. MacEachern doesn’t drive his 725,000 mile 1976 whale-tailed 911 Turbo in the winters any more. He has a 325,000 mile Supra twin-turbo on snow tires for that.
MacEachern says his two cars have very different personalities: the 911’s the raw sportscar, the Supra’s the tourer that cranks out some seriously impressive numbers. In-period, the Supra’s 0.95-1.0g skidpad, 4.5-5.0 second 0-60mph sprint, and (if unrestricted) 180 mph top speed are all figures still impressive today. The four-channel ABS produced a 70-0mph braking distance of 149ft, unequalled until the later Porsche Carrera GT bested it by a paltry 4ft.
Even so, when we call forth the lost ronin of the heyday of Pacific muscle, where does the Supra stand? The NSX is our McLaren F1, an ultimate street-focused exotic – and if you’d like to dispute that, please note that Gordon Murray drove the mid-engined Acura around for seven years while he was building the centre-seat Macca. The FD RX-7? That’s got to be the Japanese version of an F40: raw, vital, double-edged, just waiting to bite the hand that holds the reins.
In such company, the Supra feels like a Porsche 959. No, it’s not all-wheel-drive, and no it doesn’t have the provenance of Group B heritage, but it’s roughly the same level of special. This is an all-weather GT car designed to crush uppity sportscars into atoms, a comfortable and capable tourer with coal-strata-deep reserves of power. If the RX-7 is a katana, the Supra’s a leather-wrapped, lead-filled mace.
Carving along old sections of the Sea-to-Sky at speed, what the Supra’s not is paper-mâché, water-colored, helium-filled, Fast and Furious artificial movie magic. Even if the mad scientist painted it orange, affixed decals, and crashed a Cessna into the trunk of the film version, the true Mk IV Supra remains the real deal. The worry is not that the fourth-generation car doesn’t hold up by modern standards – it does, and then some – but that any replacement is staring down into the gaping maw of some unfillable boots.
Never mind how Toyota’s going to deal with the Supra’s legacy, rejoice that it ever existed in the first place. Feather the throttle until the road straightens ahead. Admire the view, then dig deep into the boost. Overnight parts from Japan, or build it yourself. It doesn’t matter: Toyota made this thing to decimate all.