GRINDING GEARS: We'll likely never see another like the old Toyota Supra Turbo

Bill MacEachern of Toronto has probably the highest mileage Porsche 930 ever.

Last time I checked in with him, he was getting close to 1.2 million kilometres on the odometer of his 1976 turbocharged rocket, which he has owned since new. He does not, however, drive the Porsche in the winter these days.

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He has a 1997 Toyota Supra Turbo for that. It has more than 500,000 km on the clock.

The fourth generation Supra is probably the high-water mark of Japanese sports cars. Well actually, it’s not really a sports car, more a grand tourer with the power of a typhoon harnessed underhood. It was born in a time of almost boundless optimism in the Japanese car industry, and was pretty much a complete failure on the sales front. Toyota Canada only sold 200 twin-turbo Supras over its entire production run.

If asked to guess, I would say probably 199 of those are still on the road. In a time when cars like the Acura NSX changed the expectations for supercars, and the Lexus LS400 redefined luxury, the Supra Turbo was hilariously over-engineered. It wasn’t particularly light by the standard of the day, but the kilograms didn’t matter.

GRINDING GEARS: We'll likely never see another quite like the old Toyota Supra_0
The Toyota Supra of the 1990s achieved cult-like status thanks in part to its ridiculous engine and prominence in the Fast & Furious series. photo supplied Brendan McAleer

Reason being, under the hood was a 3.0-litre inline six coded the 2JZ-GTE. This engine is so well-known in the enthusiast community that you can just mention it in casual conversation with any gearhead and they’ll get a faraway look in their eyes. It made 320 horsepower in standard form, could easily be tweaked to 500 or 600 h.p., and when properly built could hit the 1,000 h.p. mark, long before the Bugatti Veyron arrived.

And this was a Toyota! The guys who make beige Camrys for depressed middle-managers and seemingly pre-dented Corollas for maiden aunts. The Supra stormed onto the scene in the mid-1990s and basically tore the head off everyone else in the arena. (Except possibly the equally over-engineered Mazda RX-7 twin-turbo, but that’s a car for another time.)

When the Supra appeared on-screen as the hero car in the Fast & Furious franchise, it went from being a legend on the street to a household name. As a result, they were never cheap to buy. One or two owners possibly got lucky snapping up someone’s stalled project car, but Supras were always expensive.

Now, they’re starting to look like investment vehicles. Kids who grew up playing Gran Turismo and watching neon-underbody imports race across the screen actually have money these days, and they want the cars that were cool in their youth. Clean, low-mileage Supras are a hot commodity, especially ones that haven’t been messed with.

I drove a mostly-stock Supra Turbo around the North Shore last year, and found that the legend was mostly accurate. The interior of the car was very basic, as you’d expect from a mid-1990s Toyota, but the engine was both extremely smooth and rippling with brawn. It pressed you back in your seat with a seamless surge of boost.

Unfortunately, that was then and this is now. The new Supra, revealed in Detroit, has been co-developed with BMW, and is essentially a hardtop coupe version of the Z4. Despite having two seats, the new Supra weighs about the same as the old one, and isn’t all that far off the curb weight of a Mustang.

GRINDING GEARS: We'll likely never see another quite like the old Toyota Supra_3
The Toyota Supra of the 1990s achieved cult-like status thanks in part to its ridiculous engine and prominence in the Fast & Furious series. photo supplied Brendan McAleer

But since when is BMW engineering a bad thing? The new Supra features a turbocharged straight six that makes a healthy 335 h.p., which is 15 h.p. more than the old one. Hmm. That doesn’t seem like a huge improvement. And wait, the extremely similar Z4’s engine is getting 382 h.p. because of updated parts and improved tuning?

Horsepower isn’t everything, of course, and based on how good sportier Lexus products are to drive, I’m betting the new Supra will be a genuine hoot. Also, who’s going to complain about having another relatively affordable fun car available in showrooms instead of yet another crossover? Not me.

However, I can’t help but look at this new Supra and see how its overlapping engineering speaks to the modern manufacturing realities of being cautious about where a company spends its money and on what. On how marketing a product is now at least as important as building and developing that product. On the nagging feeling that the existence of the Lexus RC500 coupe maybe means that Toyota had to rein in the Supra a little, so it wouldn’t challenge its big brother too much.

Really, this is a story of two Supras, and two times. The previous Toyota Supra was the shimmering gleam on the Japanese bubble economy before it popped. The new one is a much more sensibly designed and targeted machine, built with passion, but also made with a healthy dollop of reality mixed in.

That dose of reality means we’ll probably never see a car like the Supra Turbo again. Weirdly, probably the closest we’re going to get is if Tesla manages to survive long enough to put out their Roadster. There’s the same level of damn-the-costs optimism going on there.

For now, welcome to the new Supra, it’ll be good to have around. But as for the best to wear that badge, there’s only ever been one king of the imports. Luckily it’s one that can go the distance.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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