Supra Vs. Supra
(February 1982, Motor Trend)
Can these two really be from the same family?
by Tony Swan
If you believe that the winds of change have been blowing over the automobile industry in general, you've got to figure there's been a young tornado whistling around inside Toyota. Cars like the one displayed in the foreground just aren't what we've been conditioned to think of as mainstream at the world's No. 2 producer of automobiles. Far too much swash. Not nearly enough reserve. And what's that piece lurking there in the background? Looks like some sort of tarted-up old Celica, doesn't it?
Whatever the source of the whirlwind, there's no denying that it's blown the cobwebs of tradition out of Toyota's product planning department. And as a result, the Celica Supra has changed overnight from a vaguely defined personal luxury car with rather flabby performance characteristics, like an athlete who never managed to get within 20 lb of his playing weight, to a razor-edged GT that's within a few horsepower of being a Supercar. If the first Supra represented Toyota's cautious recognition of a burgeoning high-profit market, we must regard Supra II as the company's interpretation of the kind of car that ought to be populating the market. To which we say: more, please.
Even in more profligate days it was rare to see such a dramatic change from one model to its successor. But in a world where costs are soaring at suborbital velocities, it is little short of astonishing. It's as though the whole Supra concept has suddenly snapped into sharp focus.
Toyota didn't invent the Supra concept in a vacuum, of course. The company's graybeards studied the achievements of the various Nissan/Datsun Z-cars, the Mazda RX-7, the Camaro, Corvette, Firebird, Jaguar XJS, various Porsches, and many others with patient interest before concluding that this market segment (A) was expanding reliably and (B) had room for more players. And we were just as curious as you are to see how the new Supra -- we've already come to think of it as the real
Supra -- measured up against some of its direct competition. But that will come later. Right now we want to set the stage by contrasting the car with its progenitor.
A major clue to Toyota's game plan for the new Supra lies in its statistics. Even though the new car has a half-inch less wheelbase than the old, it otherwise runs counter to the smaller/lighter design trend prevailing in this era of fuel guilt and cost consciousness. Supra II is almost 2 in. longer than the original (most of which may be found in the droopy snout), as well as wider (1.3 in.) and, surprisingly, a smidge taller (.2 in.). The latter is particularly interesting when you realize the new Supra has 2 in. less
Track has also been increased, 2.5 in. front, 1.4 in. rear, and even the curb weight is up a handful of pounds. Clearly, these numbers weren't generated by the econo-planners. Even though the new Supra gets reasonably good marks in mpg from the EPA (12/34 50 states) thanks to tall overall gearing, this is a car designed for people who want their vehicles to be by-god cars and not appliances.
Although the chassis is similar to the Supra I, the new car is far from being just a reskin job. The suspension revisions are as central to Supra II's character transformation as the swoopy hoodline and little sun visor at the top of the back light. Besides its wider stance, the biggest changes are at the rear of the car, where independent suspension -- extra beefy trailing arms pivoting from a rear subframe, coils, tube shocks, and anti-roll bar -- replaces the old live axle/quadruple link setup.
Up front the changes are less dramatic, with Supra I's MacPherson-strut layout carried forward to the new car. However, the steering, a dandy variable-assist rack-and-pinion system, is all new and represents another marked improvement over the old car. Brakes are discs all around, like the original Supra, but Toyota has gone with slightly larger rotors, particularly in the rear, for improved power. As was the case for the Supra I, the new Supra is offered with either automatic or 5-speed manual transmission, but both units are new -- Toyota's new 4-speed auto for the luxo Supra and an aluminum case 5-speed for the performance model tested here. Fourth gear in the 5-speed is direct -- 1:1 -- as it was last year, but all the other ratios have been adjusted to take advantage of the new engine's broad torque band. Final drive has also been revised, from 3.91:1 in the original to 3.73:1 in the new.
While we feel the most impressive feature of the new Supra, particularly in performance trim, is its handling, this probably won't be the key to its success in the marketplace. Nossir. With apologies to Mazda, just one look at that sexy exterior is going to be enough to put most hearts somewhere up near redline. And once the prospective buyer climbs in, the seduction is likely to complete before the test drive.
Although the new Supra shares sheet metal with the 4-cylinder Celica from the windshield back, the nose treatment, including pop-up headlights, belongs to the upscale car alone. Thus, in one stroke Toyota has shed the old Supra's rather clunky-looking stretched Celica styling and separated the Supra from its humbler brethren. As noted earlier, the performance model's little sun shade -- it serves no aerodynamic purpose -- also contributes to the sense of separation from the rest of the Celica line-up. This item has drawn mixed reviews, and Toyota has accordingly made it a delete option; but we have found that after a time it begins to lose its strangeness. Some MT
staffers even got so they like it.
In fact, about the only aspect of the new car's exterior design that came in for consistently indifferent comment from the MT
test staff was the going-away view. One tester called it "too Japanese looking"; and while this may not be a particularly scientific description, it more or less sums up this area of the new Supra's styling.
But you're not going to be thinking about the Supra's tail treatment when you're inside the car. You're going to be thinking about what a terrific time you're having and what truly outstanding seating Toyota has come up with. The new Supra's command seat -- replete with Recaroesque side bolsters, inflatable lumbar support bladders (you blow 'em up with a little squeeze bulb then bleed each one separately until you've got it just right), and five other adjustments -- is nothing short of superb. If this isn't the best production car seat available today -- Chevy's spiffy new Conteur model included -- we'll eat a double-decked mohair sandwich.
The pilot's seat is designed for spirited driving, and thus makes for a fairly snug fit, particularly for those of the most beamish persuasion, but leg and head room are ample. Rear seating is strictly auxiliary -- this is a typical 2+2. The fat two-spoke steering wheel adjusts for rake and affords a good view of the comprehensive instrument package, and in general the control layout is very good. Our only quibbles are with the horn buttons, awkwardly located on the steering wheel spokes, and the cruise control's controls. The latter are mounted on the instrument cowling, and take too much getting used it.
As has been the Supra practice from the beginning, our test car was packed with plenty of standard equipment, including air conditioning and a high-quality stereo with an almost bewildering variety of controls. The high-zoot Supra comes with even more gadgetry -- a trip calculator and a digital tach laid out in analog fashion, to name a couple -- which tells us once again that onboard amusements will be big in the industry for some time to come.
However, the onboard amusement that continues to be the most meaningful to us is driving. Trip computers, etc., are fine if you have to slog across Nebraska (a thought that makes us wonder who's going to be the first to offer radar detection as a manufacturer's option), but there isn't a calculator in the world that'll help you unkind a set of fast S-bends.
When it comes to this sort of activity, the new Supra puts the old one right on the trailer. It is quicker, faster, tighter, more responsive, and more predictable. About the only adjustment we’d like to make, as noted at the onset, is the addition of a few more horsepower to this slick package. Although the new twin-cam engine makes almost 30 hp more than it did in SOHC trim, 145 hp is clearly well below a reasonable (reasonable in this case defined in terms of durability) potential for an engine of this size and sophistication. Of course, we're always wishing for more horsepower these days, and frequently for more than just a few. But in this application a little more grunt would provide the opportunity to regularly take the Supra's chassis/tire package beyond its limits, rather that just to thee frontiers. Which is a long way of saying you can't steer with the throttle.
Still, the new engine is a smooth and quiet unit to live with, something that could also be said for the previous mono-cammer. And its torque characteristics, combined with the new Supra's sharpened overall responses, make it an all-conference player in the stoplight wars, something that couldn't
be said of its predecessor. Despite rather tall gearing and a rather hefty curb weight, its acceleration times are uniformly superior to those of the old Supra.
When it came to hauling the car down from highway speeds, the new Supra, predictably, was again superior to the old. But we feel the '81 Supra's braking distances, which were simply not even in the ballpark, were not a true index of that car's capabilities but reflected the eccentricities of this particular vehicle. So we'll confine ourselves here to noting the Supra II's brakes are virtually flawless, offering impressive power, excellent control, and only the slightest tendency toward rear wheel lockup. Naturally, the performance Supra's fatter tires (225/60HR-14 Bridgestone Potenzas) helped out in this score.
The most telling distinction between the two cars materialized in slalom runs. Whether it was a straight-line slalom with evenly spaced cones or our special triple-lane-change setup, Supra II's responses were always quicker and more precise. The steering feel -- very direct and positive: this has to be one of the best power-rack systems in the business -- told us that Supra II is no lightweight when it comes to transient responses. The car has a share more forward weight bias than Supra I, and that weight makes itself known when you're pushing hard in the corners. But there's nothing like the terminal understeer and excessive body roll that goes with hurrying the old Supra. All of which points up the fact that the first car wasn't really designed for that sort of work, while the new one clearly is.
The advent of this new Supra marks an interesting change in course for the shapers of destiny at Toyota. Instead of sniffing around the periphery of luxury sports/GT market, issuing warmups of cars intended for more mundane pursuits, they are clearly committed to the mainstream. And the expression of that commitment, the second edition of the Supra, is just as clearly a bulls-eye for the engineering team. If it gives something away in value to the Mazda RX-7, it is certainly price competitive with the 280ZX. And while it may not be the equal of the ZX Turbo in sheer go-power, it is otherwise state of the art, a stimulating, high-content performance car that's going to send a lot of the other guys back to their drawing boards.