THE NEXT SAMURAI

THE TURBO-SIX, REAR-DRIVE SUPRA PROVES THE THEORY THAT GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT

BY MATT PRIOR

ELL THIS is the new Toyota Supra. What can I tell you? More like: what am I still unable to tell you?

Itís still dazzle-camouflaged outside. Inside itís carpeted like someoneís skinned Skippy and draped him over the dashboard. Itís still eight months away from production and therefore still in prototype form. Iím accompanied by a minder whenever I go near it. And theyíll barely tell me a single flipping specification.

They insist the numbers donít matter. (Which begs the question: why not just tell us, if theyíre so unimportant?) What only matters at the moment, they say, is the way it drives, the way it makes you feel. And this, Iím thrilled to report, I can tell you.

THE SUPRA FEELS LIKE A STABLE, WELL ROUNDED SPORTS COUPE

I drove it, quite a lot and quite fast by the standards of events that only have four prototype cars available. Itís yet another painful plink in the agonising drip-feed of Supra information that, letís not forget, began in 2012 when BMW and Toyota announced they were going to work together. Does Toyota really need seven years to build a car?

Only this much is confirmed of what we know: the Supra has a lower centre of gravity than an 86, despite having a 3.0-litre straight-six engine, driving the rear wheels through an eight-speed automatic gearbox (BMW/ZF respectively); while a BMW M Active limited-slip differential sits at the back axle. As with BMWís Z4, the weight distribution will be 50:50.

I still canít tell you the exact power, but 250kW sounds about right, 475Nm too, and the kerbweight is likely 1500kg. The body rigidity, despite being a blend of steel and aluminium, is as stiff as a Lexus LFAís carbon one. The wheelbase is around 2440mm and the tracks approximately 1600mm. There will be faster and, I suspect, slower versions of this car later, to make the sums add up for Toyota, so the slow release of info will go on even after it goes into production in May. Youíll see the final car, shorn of disguise, at Detroit motor show time in January.

Another thing to add to what we know: itís good to drive. Our route is a two-hour loop from the outskirts of Madrid, so is partly in the city, partly on the motorway, partly on country roads, and then Ė goody gumdrops Ė arrives at a racetrack. Because Iím sharing the drive with a colleague from another magazine, even though Iím contractually obliged to pretend there is no such thing, and because thereís always a minder in the Supra, sometimes one of us is following in an 86 while the other drives the Supra, which I mention for reasons Iíll come back to.

First, then, getting into the Supra. Despite the drapery inside you can sense it has is a BMWcentric interior. The switchgear is BMW, the driving position is long and straight, the gearstick is BMWís. Does that matter? I doubt it. The iDrive multimedia system is better than Toyotaís alternative and thereíll surely be a Toyota face on that anyway, as there is on the instrument binnacle, while the steering wheel is thinner of rim than BMW uses, and round. Praise be on both of those counts.

You sit low, peering through a letterbox windscreen, with a high window line and the curved bonnet spearing off into the distance. No idea whether it is (it probably is), but it immediately feels bigger than, say, a Porsche 718 Cayman, whose corners are easier to place, owing to the visibility. You are aware, at once, where the Supraís engine is.

Itís a refined engine and drivetrain, though. If thereís work to still be done on the calibration, itíd be news to me. A six is always smooth, but a BMW six, turbocharged here, is incredibly so. Step-off is almost imperceptible and the Supra, even in standard drive mode, is unencumbered by the response modern autos sometimes give, where they feel like theyíre trying to lug things out from too low revs. The stop-start system wasnít functioning, which probably helps, mind.

THE ENGINEíS EXTREMELY SMOOTH AND RESPONSIVE

Push a sport button and the throttle and gearbox response sharpens, but there are gearshift paddles, so if you want a quicker response, itís probably more rewarding to take control yourself. Thereís no word on a manual íbox yet; but Toyota would like one.

The Supra rides well, too, better than a BMW M4 while on the same size tyres: bespoke Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber of 255/35 R19 at the front and 275/35 R19 at the rear. Passive dampers will be standard, but adaptive dampers were fitted to the cars we tried. These, too, firm up via the sport button, as does the steering weight, though in regular daily driving thereís no need: the underlying compliance is welcome, but thereís no sense that the body weight is getting away from it. The Supra feels like a stable, well-rounded sports coupe. Its engineers say they did 90 per cent of its development work on the road, and I think it shows. In town, on the motorway, itís mature in a way that, say, a BMW M2 Competition or Alpine A110, perhaps even a Cayman, are not.

Itís only when you get onto a country road, then, that you start to push the boundaries of the standard suspension settingís limits. The steering is smooth, progressive, sharper off of straight-ahead than some front-engined coupes. Presumably it is to give an extra sense of agility that, compared to a 718, the Supra simply canít have. Body roll builds progressively, but this is where you want the dampers firmed. Without them like that, as you get back on the throttle and the differential begins to worry about acceleration, you feel the bodyís mass shifting in a way you donít think you would in a Cayman.

With dampers tightened that much is alleviated, with not too much loss in compliance, and thereís a pleasing, reassuring balance. Hints of understeer on the way in, likewise oversteer on the way out, not unlike, say, an Aston Martin Vantage only a bit lighter. A BMW M2 with both more compliance and control (or an M2 Competition with more compliance).

Swapping into and following in an 86, though, youíre reminded of the advantages that minimal mass gives you. Sure, the 86ís engine is wheezy, but working it hard you can carry speed and enjoy delicate fingertip steering responses denied in the bigger car. Itís a reminder of how exceptional the 86ís chassis is; which I suspect wasnít the objective of the exercise.

But still, there are other things a Supra can do. The engineís extremely sweet, smooth, broadly responsive but happy revving. In Sport mode a flap opens in the exhaust and Toyota says thereís more work to do on the induction noise, probably via sound tubes off the engine Ė so real, rather than fake noise. But unlike a Cayman youíre happy to let it rev and sing, or sit at high revs pre-overtake.

THE CHASSIS CLEARLY CAN HANDLE MORE POWER

And itís clearly a chassis that can handle more power. Nowhere is that more evident than on a circuit where, Sport mode engaged, the Supra displays the same balance as on the road, only enhanced. The suspension maintains good control but with serious compliance over bumps or kerbs; where those would thump through in an M2 Competition, the Supra glides across, as a Cayman might. It doesnít rotate as willingly as a Cayman or, from my limited experience, an Alpine A110, but thatís not surprising given where the engine is.

With stability control set to Ďhave a little slipí but not Ďoffí, (the minder still alongside, see), you get to feel the balance: steering thatís smooth if not laden with feel, a hint of entry understeer, a hint of exit oversteer with the knowledge that you could have a lot more if given the opportunity. Some of my favourite-handling cars Ė an Aston V12 Vantage S, that 86 Ė have the kind of balance the Supra displays, albeit usually with more rawness. But thatís fine. It is, in this spec, 90 per cent a road car and yet still happy on a hot circuit, being pushed hard without overheating its steel discs, offering more handling balance and playfulness, more reward, the more you push it.

Toyota has taken a delicate path with the Supra; a road car that gives more when you ask for more and where an A110 or M2 Competition might give you more all the time, thatís no bad thing. In terms of daily maturity itís closest, then, to a 718 Cayman. Curious. A few years ago a Cayman would have been seen as unbeatable. Now everybody wants a crack at it. On this showing, Toyota is getting as close as anyone.