Would you be interested in a lighter, quicker – and less expensive iteration of BMW’s Z4 roadster? With a hard top rather than a soft-top?
Then step right up! Toyota has what you’re looking for – in a package that’s very similar but not similarly skinned.
What It Is
The Supra name goes way back to the ‘70s, when Toyota up-rated the Celica to compete with other Japanese sports cars of the time, especially the Datsun (now Nissan) 240Z. By the ‘80s, the Supra became a separate model in its own right and – like the Nissan Z-car – went through a succession of redesigns that resulted in a quicker, more capable – but also heavier and more expensive – car. Eventually, both cars were cancelled because not enough people could afford them anymore.
Nissan brought back the Z car in the early 2000s – and now Toyota has brought back the Supra.
Though it doesn’t look it, the two cars share an underlying chassis as well as the same BMW-built drivetrains. But the Z4 is roadster – a convertible – only.
The Supra is a hardtop, only.
It’s also only $43,190 to start – vs. $49,700 for its BMW not-so-Doppelganger.
You can also get it with the same BMW inline six that costs $63,200 at the BMW store – for the M40i version of the Z4 – for just $54,540 at your local Toyota store. This also gets you upgraded brakes, a strut tower brace and active-damping suspension system.
The Supra also comes with a few other things you can’t get at your BMW store, including a one-touch button on the center console that turns off all the vehicle’s saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety systems, just like that.
Which is something that’s hard to put a price on.
Unfortunately, both cars also come with one other thing that may put off sports car fans – an automatic transmission, only.
Weirdly – for cars of this type – there is no manual transmission, even optionally.
If you want to shave some more weight, Toyota now offers an A91-CF Edition of the Supra. It comes with a set of light-weight alloy wheels, carbon fiber outside rearview mirrors, rear spoiler and trim.
This model stickers for $63,280.
A more affordable version of the BMW Z4.
Some will think it looks better than the Z4.
Hatchback’d rear opens up a surprising amount of usable cargo space for a car of this type.
What’s Not So Good
BMW makes great engines – but so does Toyota. Why not a Toyota engine in this iconic Toyota sports car?
Automatic shifts quickly, superbly – but it’s not a manual.
It’s a shame the lightweight parts are only available in the highest-priced version of this car.
The Supra comes with your pick of either of two BMW engines. The standard engine is a 2.0 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine that produces 255 horsepower and 295 ft.-lbs. of torque.
The optional engine is BMW’s 3.0 liter inline six, also turbocharged. It produces 382 horsepower and 368 ft.-lbs. of torque. Both engines are paired with an eight speed automatic that sends the power to the rear wheels.
There is no manual transmission option, which seems odd until you understand BMW’s way of looking at things.
Which is according to the numbers.
Modern automatics are electronic transmissions; they can be programmed to shift with the exactitude of a mathematical calculation. They shift faster and more accurately – and more consistently accurately – than any human hand and foot can change gears. If you want the consistently quickest acceleration, the consistently best lap times – the modern electronically shifted automatic is the way to roll. It is part of the reason why so many of the highest-performing supercars are now also automatic-only.
There is also another reason. Electronically controlled transmissions allow for finer tuning of the engine, which is a very big deal these days as car companies struggle to get their engines past the Compliance Gantlet of federal (and foreign) emissions standards, which are harder to comply with if the car has a manual transmission because it is impossible to control how the driver shifts – and that has an effect on the car’s emissions.
Which brings us to the matter of the BMW engines in this Toyota sports car.
Why not Toyota engines?
Probably because of the costs involved in getting a new engine through the Compliance Gantlet. Toyota has many fine engines that have already made it through the gantlet, but none of them are in-line sixes, the traditional Supra engine. Toyota does have some V6 engines – and four cylinder engines – but neither apparently would have worked in this particular car.
So rather than design new engines for this car – as would have been done 20 or 30 years ago – Toyota decided to buy engines (and the automatic transmissions that go with them) from BMW, these being already anointed as acceptable by the regulatory apparat.
It was probably the only realistic choice, since the cost of getting a new engine of its own through the regulatory gantlet would likely have resulted in the resultant Supra costing more than a Z4 – and in more ways than one.
BMW can offset the cost of building its 2.0 liter and 3.0 liter engines – and all of the associated compliance costs – by using those engines in many other BMW models besides just the Z4, including the current 3 and 5 series sedans, among many others. It can use these engines in so many other models because almost all of BMW’s models are rear-wheel-drive (like the Z4) and so they fit the configuration readily.But almost all of Toyota’s models are front-drive and it is harder to fit an in-line six, especially, in a front-drive car since it would mount sideways (transversely) rather than front-to-back.
There is one important difference between the Z4 and the Supra that may not be mechanical but has a very functional effect.
The Supra is about 100 pounds lighter than the Z4 (3,181 lbs. vs. 3,287 lbs.) because it is a hardtop coupe rather than a soft-top convertible and so doesn’t need the additional structural bracing that must be added to strengthen the structure of a car without any roof structure. There are also no electric motors to open and close the top.
This makes the Supra slightly quicker than the Z4 and tighter – as well as less expensive.
It’s still a lot heavier than a Miata roadster, however – by some 800 pounds. And the base-engined version is only about seven tenths of a second quicker to 60 for that reason and $16,360 more expensive to buy than the Mazda. The latter also comes standard with a manual transmission, which is unavailable in the Supra because it is unavailable in the Z4.
Not that there’s anything objectively wrong with the Supra/Z4’s eight speed automatic. It can’t be faulted – by the numbers or by its behavior. It is programmed brilliantly. In Sport mode – which by the way disables ASS in the Supra, the obnoxious engine start/stop “technology” that most new cars are saddled with to appease the mephitic molochs of the regulatory state – it shifts even faster than Frankenstein from the original Death Race 2000, almost hard enough to chirp the tires on the 1-2 and 2-3 upshifts. It anticipates the need to downshift, holds just the right gear at just the right time.
But it’s not a manual. And that costs intangibles.
The Miata’s not quite as quick – but it is much more connected. This matters – a lot – in a car of this type. It is arguably the whole point of owning a car of this type. Two seats and three pedals. A shifter that you can feel is connected – physically, actually connected – to the transmission, which you are literally connected to, via your right hand. You are in touch with the drivetrain; you can feel the vibrations, the gears moving at your behest. And via your left leg, which eases the third pedal in and out, sensing the connection between you and the engine.
Sometimes, you downshift too late – or too early. Sometimes, you bog it coming off the line. But when you don’t, it’s you that didn’t.
Driving an automatic-only sports car is less engaging, no matter how vivacious or potent the engine.
Still, the awful truth is that many people can’t drive stick – and because of traffic, many no longer want to.
Interestingly, it appears that Nissan will continue to offer a manual transmission in the 370Z when it returns in 2022 (as a 2023 model).
Unlike the Toyota 86 – which is unmistakably a Subaru BRZ with a Toyota badge – the Supra looks nothing like the Z4. It is more voluptuously styled, with suggestive hips and graceful sweeps, wasp-waist-tapering rear glass and an impressively complex hood stamping that folds inward toward the centerline and rolls over to blend with the front fenders.
It is gorgeous – and it is functional.
This is another story not told by the numbers.
The numbers will advise you that the Supra has 10.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity and that its BMW brother with the same mother has a dead-heat 9.9 cubic feet. But the Z4 – being a soft-top roadster – has a trunk with a very tiny opening. The Supra’s glass-topped rear hatch opens wide – to allow the option of slipping an eight-foot long 2×6 into the car and then being able to close it for the ride home.
It may seem silly to use a sports car for such things. But it adds a degree of practicality that makes this car the more sensible choice. It means not having to go home to get your other car to get that 2x6x8 – or take the other car to work instead, because of what you need to get on the way back home.
The hardtop is also inherently more secure than a soft-top, which can be sliced open by thieves or vandals and which, regardless, will probably have to be replaced at some point because cloth frays and seams come undone. The hardtop should last as long as the car.
Inside, you’ll see some hints of BMW kinship – the electronic shifter-toggle on the console, the rotary knob adjacent, which you use to access the menu items displayed on the LCD touchscreen above – but lost in translation (thankfully) is the BMW’s awkward trapezoidal gauge scheme, with a tach and speedometer that have angles rather than sweeps. Instead, a more visually agreeable display anchored by a large – and traditionally round – digital tachometer, with a digital numerical speedo offset to the left. It is much easier to know your speed and RPM at a glance using this set-up.
One of the nicest things about this Toyota-via-BMW is that you can turn off all the “safety” nannies – including Lane Keep Assist, Automated Emergency Braking and traction/stability control by depressing a single button on the center console. No need to waste time disabling each one, one at a time – as in almost every other car.
Another really nice thing is that you can get the BMW six in this Toyota for $54,500 – as opposed to $63,700 for the exact same thing in the BMW. It’s not just the engine, either. If you buy the 3.0 six you also get the upgraded Brembo four piston front brakes, a strut tower brace and adaptive suspension dampers.
You also get usable cupholders, standard. That’s something the Mazda Miata doesn’t offer – even as an option.
The Bottom Line
This Supra might have been even better if it were a Toyota – but as it is, it’s a head-turning value-priced alternative to the BMW.
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