Here's a car that represents one of the more remarkable automotive metamorphoses in recent memory. Over the course of its first three renewals, the Toyota Supra evolved as an increasingly overstuffed, over-weight personal luxury car. Though it was portrayed as a high-performance sport coupe, its true character fell more into the realm of rolling hedonism.
That era ended decisively in January 1993 when Toyota rolled out the current Supra, an automobile that turned its back on its own pudgy past and be-came a real sports car -taut, aggressive, competent and lighter than its predecessor.
Although the Supra still has a respectable range of luxury-car features, it emphasizes sports-car virtues that include decisive handling, exceptional braking and plenty of smooth power. As a result, the Supra takes its place with the best sports cars of our time: the Mazda RX-7, Chevrolet Corvette, Nissan 300ZX and Porsche 911.
Unchanged for 1995, the Supra comes in two basic editions, Turbo and non-Turbo, and both offer motoring alfresco if you order the optional removable roof panel. We went with the base model, which boasted impressive standard equipment such as anti-lock brakes (ABS), air conditioning, power mirrors and locks and cruise control. Total cost: $37,757.
Toyota's stylists wanted to make it clear that their new Supra was something special, and they succeeded. Though this car lacks the sleek sports-car perfection of the RX-7, it has an unmistakable presence all its own: low, squat and slightly outrageous, particularly the high-winged Turbo edition. The overall design isn't as well-integrated as its prime rival, the 300ZX, but its weight distribution is exemplary, a key element in this car's balanced handling.
With or without turbocharging, the Supra is something of a rolling light show. There are six lights up front, not counting marker lamps, and eight across the stern, not counting the high-mounted centered brake light. It's an arrangement that helps to set the Supra apart, and certainly lets other drivers know when you're coming - or going.
Both Supra engines are 3.0-liter in-line 6-cylinders, with dual overhead camshafts and 24 valves, an engine design that's been under continuous development at Toyota for a long time. Although an I-6 doesn't lend itself to packaging as well as a V6, it's inherently smoother, as the Supra engine illustrates.
it's also potent. Without turbocharging, the Supra engine generates a very respectable 220 hp. With sequential twin turbos -one spinning continuously for good low-speed response, the other kicking in when you want to unleash all the horses - output jumps to 320 hp.
The standard Supra has a 5-speed manual transmission as basic equipment, while Turbo models get a 6-speed. A 4-speed automatic is optional across the board, Turbo and non-Turbo alike.
A sophisticated ABS, capable of integrating cornering loads into its computations, is standard on all models. The brakes themselves - big vented discs fore and aft - are impressive in the standard Supra, and the Turbo's even bigger brake rotors, with spiral venting up front, are positively race worthy.
The tires, too, are clearly performance-oriented: fat, low-profile and rated for speeds higher than 150 mph. The standard Supra rolls on 16-in. alloy wheels, the Turbo on 17-inches.
The cockpit of our Supra was well-organized, attractive and cozy without feeling too claustrophobic. There's more elbow room here than in, say, an RX-7, although the Supra conveys the same kind of race-car ambiance - purposeful comfort, in contrast to the kind of near-opulence of the previous generation.
Most controls are well-marked and easy to find after a brief orientation. A pair of typical Toyota stalks combine several secondary control functions such as lights and wipers. Power-window switches and outside-mirror controls are set into the door panel and are easy to reach.
The climate controls are simple to figure out and easy to adjust while the car is moving, but the audio-control push buttons in our test car were on the small side and difficult to manipulate, and the shift lever sits just a trifle high in the center console.
We were a little surprised by the absence of cupholders - sports-car drivers drink coffee just like everyone else, after all - and the coin trays tucked beneath the center console lid aren't particularly useful.
We were also a little taken aback by the bucket seats. They were comfortable and had a wide range of adjustability, but we expected a little more in the way of side bolstering in a car with such formidable cornering capability.
The rear seat, however, was no surprise at all. Like all 2+2 coupes, getting an extra passenger into this space requires agility on the part of the person climbing into the rear, plus lots of cooperation from the front-seat passenger. Getting two passengers into the rear of a Supra comes close to defying several laws of physics.
Our only other observation concerning the interior has to do with driver sight lines, which are slightly obstructed in the rear quarters. However, the side mirrors are good-sized and do a fine job of compensating for those small blind spots. The view directly to the rear in our wingless test car was only average. (Toyota claims that the turbo's optional spoiler doesn't obstruct vision to the rear, an opinion we don't quite share.) Forward vision over the sloping hood is good, al-though it's somewhat hard to tell just where the front of the car ends.
For all its weight loss, the Supra is still a big car, which makes its agility that much more remarkable. Even at racing speeds, the Supra displays very little body roll when hurled into corners, and it sticks to the road like barnacles on a ship.
The Supra's extra-wide wheels reduce tire sidewall flex, which lends an exception-ally precise response to the Car's all-around handling. And big tires and big brakes add up to unusually strong stopping power. In this area, the Supra's performance may very well be the best in its class.
We were also impressed by the performance of our test Car's limited slip differential, which helped keep the rear wheels driving smoothly even in hard cornering and emergency avoidance maneuvers.
What this adds up to is a driving experience That's at least as satisfying as its major competitors - provided you're on dry roads. On slippery surfaces, the Supra's substantial power, rear-wheel drive and fat tires - designed for maximum performance on smooth, dry roads - can make for tricky driving.
Considering its finely honed handling, our test car's ride quality was surprisingly comfortable. It was fairly compliant over reasonably well-maintained roads, although tar strips and pavement ripples provide little reminders of the steel in its sinews. On rougher surfaces, the ride tended toward choppy, and it was choppier still in the Turbo, which has stiffer suspension tuning. In fact, this transmitted a fair amount of road noise to the supra's interior, although we never found this to be really objectionable.
The Supra is the best sports car Toyota has ever produced and one of the best of its breed. toyota's smaller MR2, a mid-engine 2-seater, is balanced, beautiful and far more affordable. But the Supra offers a combination of smooth power, fighter-plane response and sheer chutzpah that make it stand out in any crowd.
There's a problem, obviously, with the price. But, just as obviously, that's a problem with the supra's competitors, too. If $37,000 or so doesn't make you clutch your heart, this is a car that's easy to love.