Malicious compliance. That’s what I think when I see the new Supra. It’s almost like Toyota took everybody’s non-negotiable list of must-have Supra qualities—straight-six engine, turbo power, outrageous styling, BMW-esque dynamic behavior—and delivered them in a manner deliberately calculated to offend pretty much everybody. Then, just to drive the stake the rest of the way into our hearts, the chief engineer tells us that the Supra doesn't have a stick shift because it might impact the Toyota 86 business case. That’s right: the company that sells an astounding total of ten different and unique sport-utility vehicles across two brands says that putting a stick-shift into its $53,000 coupe would somehow damage the sales prospects of its $27,000 coupe. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that Toyota was selling three separate Prius-branded vehicles with extremely similar drivetrains, all priced within a few grand?
I find it impossible to believe that the world’s most competent and best-regarded manufacturer can’t do any better that this Supra. It’s based on a car that very few people find compelling, and it is highly likely to offer a distinctly non-Toyota ownership experience. We’ve already seen this movie with the 86, and it’s not exactly Citizen Kane. It certainly doesn’t help that the Supra looks like . What possible reason could it have to exist, other than to prove to the shareholders that people won’t buy a Toyota-branded GT car? I recently read a caustic review of the infamous Captain Beefheart album, Trout Mask Replica, that called it “the record you put on at the end of a party, when you want everybody to go home.” Apparently the sports-car party is coming to an end, because this trout-mask BMW by another name is transparently calculated to send all of us home to our SUVs.
Which is doubly ironic, because if the new Supra followed the precedent set by all four of its predecessors, it would have been an SUV itself. I can hear you getting agitated all the way across the Internet. “Baruth, you spluttering moron,” you’re saying. “All four Supras up to this point have been straight-six-powered, four-seat grand-touring coupes. What possible reason would Toyota have to make the new one an SUV? How could that be part of the Supra tradition?” Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
To understand why the Supra name should have come back on a sport-utility vehicle, you have to set the Wayback Machine for 1978, when the first Celica Supra appeared. The conventional wisdom will tell you that Toyota stretched the nose of the mini-Mustang Celica and dropped in a straight-six to steal buyers from the Nissan 280ZX, but that’s ridiculous. The Z had been in production for almost a decade at that point. If Toyota had wanted to challenge the Z, they’d have done it earlier.
No, the Supra wasn’t a Toyota Z-car—it was a Toyota Cordoba, or a Toyota Monte Carlo. The best contemporaneous source for how popular society viewed the Supra is , which chronicles the life of a Toyota dealer and describes the Supra as “the ultimate Toyota,” a “blue buzzard” loaded with luxury features. It was ruinously expensive, setting a precedent followed by all Supras afterwards, and it prioritized comfort over sporting potential. Compared to the 1978 Supra, the admittedly Brougham-ish 280ZX was a McLaren 675LT, particularly in Turbo form.
Why would Toyota build a Japanese Cordoba? Simple: personal luxury coupes were the SUVs of the late '70s, outselling the plain-Jane sedans on which they were based and commanding massive markups for a minor amount of extra content. The best-selling car in America in 1977 was the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, sold almost exclusively in personal luxury coupe format. Chrysler’s best-seller was the Cordoba. At one point in 1978, according to an unimpeachable contemporaneous source—my parents—you had to get on a waiting list just to order a new Monte Carlo.
By 1982, however, personal-luxury coupes were showroom poison. The American buyer was in love with the flared fenders and flat nose of the Porsche 924 Carrera GT—so the Supra re-appeared as a Japanese take on the 924 and 944, still sporting a straight-six but very much aping the junior Porsches in all other respects. These are arguably the best and purest Supras; they are a joy to drive at speed and it’s been my distinct pleasure to run one in circle-track racing.
For the yuppie-obsessed mid-Eighties, Toyota reimagined the Supra as a sort of Japanese 633CSi, big and bloated and, even in the conservative US market, blessed with a turbo to counteract the weight. These are charming cars, trading the sharp reflexes of their immediate predecessors for a sense of bank-vault autobahn solidity.
The fourth-generation Supra, heavily venerated now due to an unforgettable role as the alpha performance dog in the first Fast and the Furious film, was just another overweight, overpowered GT cars in a decade filled with them. It didn’t matter if the badge on the back said 928GTS, 850CSi, 3000GT, Z28, or Supra: they all had about 300 horsepower, they all weighed north of 3500 pounds in top trim, and eventually they all became impossible for young people to insure.
Do you see the common thread that connects all four generations? It isn’t the straight six, and it isn’t the general coupe style—it’s how Toyota targeted the Supra brand to whatever type of vehicle successful young people wanted to drive. In 1978, that meant personal luxury. In 1982, it meant 924 clone. In 1989, it meant knockoff 635CSi—and in 1994, it meant joining the club of porky $45,000 quasi-supercars.
So aside from Teslas and Ubers, what are successful young people driving nowadays? You know the answer: sporty SUVs, particularly lifted “four-door-coupes” like the Porsche Macan and BMW X4. The era of sports-car-as-enviable-social-message is long gone. If they remade “Flashdance” in 2019, the steel mill owner would drive a Macan, not a 911SC. Sports cars have the distinct whiff of nerd lately; they are the Tilley Hats of automobiles.
If Toyota wanted the Supra to generate the same level of interest and desire in 2019 as it did in 1978, they should have put it on an SUV platform. I’m thinking a swoopy, low-roof take on the RAV4, perhaps with a V6 hybrid powertrain. Price it at $60,000 and let the wealthy tech crowd descend upon the dealership like the proverbial swarm of locusts. We know this approximate format works because it’s working with the Lexus NX, which has the same kind of enviable demographic support today that the Supra did in 1978. In fact, you can argue that the existence of Lexus makes the Supra brand obsolete; the #Blessed crowd doesn’t visit Toyota dealerships anymore.
A $60,000 RAV4-based Supra probably wouldn’t be great to drive. It wouldn’t inspire any kind of fanatic devotion from Toyota loyalists—but that will probably be true for the Z4-based Supra, and unlike a sports car, a luxury RAV4 Supra might actually sell in measurable numbers. There’s also historical precedent: the first two generations of Supra were just hopped-up versions of everyday Toyotas.
I know you won’t take my word for any of the above. You wanted a “real” Supra, and Toyota built something that meets the basic criteria. The good news, if there is any to be had, is that Toyota already builds a kinda-sorta spiritual successor to the first-gen Supra we all venerate. It’s called the Lexus LC500, and it’s a delightful, occasionally thrilling grand tourer with pure Toyota DNA from wheel bearings to sunroof.
True, it’s not priced like a Supra, which has traditionally shadowed the MSRP of a well-equipped Corvette—but it is also the most stylish Toyota in history. I saw a lightly used one at a dealer the other day for $75,000, which isn’t that far off what a brand-new Supra with all the options will command. Best of all, it doesn’t have a smidgen of malicious compliance about it. The LC500 has irrational exuberance written all over its Predator face. It’s a real Toyota, it’s real nice, and buying one would be a real good idea. If anybody asks you why you got a V8 luxury car instead of that Internet-famous straight-six baseball-cap-lookin’ Supra, you can just tell them you didn’t want to compete with the 86. How’s that for malicious compliance?