Return Of The Supra
Why A Discontinued Import Is Poised For A Massive Comeback
At this year’s Detroit Auto Show, the biggest crowds weren’t for six-figure luxury cars or futuristic concept vehicles, but rather a mid-tier sports car from Toyota with less horsepower than a BMW M3.
So why was a middle-of-the-pack street racer one of the show’s most anticipated debuts? Because after 20 long years, the fabled Supra was finally back.
Discontinued in 2002—and not imported to the U.S. since 1999—the Toyota Supra has been revived for the 2020 model year, having become a posthumous phenomenon in the intervening years for reasons both cultural and mechanical.
The Supra: A Gearmonkey’s Dream
Above all else, the Toyota Supra earned its considerable rep because it’s the kind of car any wrench jockey with savvy and a few bucks could convert from a mid-level import into a legit supercar killer. Indeed, the 320-horsepower factory versions of the car were often just an opening offer in the eyes of its drivers, as any tuner worth his wrenches could quickly push that number into the four digits.
In fact, when Paul Walker mashed a sneaker-clad foot down on the clutch of his custom built, fiery orange Toyota Supra MkIV in the first The Fast and the Furious, he was just letting the rest of the world know what true gearheads already understood: You didn’t need a six-figure supercar to be the fastest driver on the road.
The Toyota Supra might best be known as the car Paul Walker rode to fame in The Fast & The Furious, but there's a lot more under the hood of this mid-tier sports car. (Source: Flickr/Arild Andersen)
Type “Supra vs.” into YouTube and you’ll find thousands of videos of souped-up and modded Supras beating everything from Ferraris to Lambos. It was a car that let you line up next to the driver of any supercharged six-figure show-off car at a red light and tell them “you might have the money, but I have the power” before you launched off the line and made them watch your taillights fade into the distance.
It wasn’t just a straight-line hammer, either. Toyota’s engineers were obsessive about lowering the weight, including features as big as an aluminum hood—and as small as hollow carpet fibers in the floor mats—to create a balanced and light-on-its feet driving feel.
Because of its mechanical moxie and cultural cachet, coveted Supra models with low mileage are selling for outrageous prices, such as a 1994 MkLV with just over 11,000 miles that went for $173,600 this March. And that was just a touch under the $185,000 that Walker’s Fast and Furious Supra fetched at auction (which is $35,000 more than the asking price for Vin Diesel’s 1969 Dodge Charger from the same movie).
However, those impressive numbers are a far cry from the humble beginnings of a car that initially didn’t even get its own name.
The Supra Origin Story
The Supra was first produced in 1978 as the Celica Supra, designed to be an affordable luxury car with a sporty side, featuring high-end options, such as an AM/FM stereo and power windows. With a sticker price of $9,578 (the equivalent of $35,000 today), the 2.6-liter SOHC inline-6 had plenty of muscle—but it was hardly the intimidator that it would eventually become.
The Supra actually started out as a version of the Toyota Celica, but its cult-like following soon earned it a spot of its own on Toyota's roster. (Source: iStock Photo)
In 1986, all of that began to change when the Supra A70 was separated from the Celica and became a model of its very own. Borrowing heavily from Toyota’s legendary 2000GT, this far sleeker Supra was the leader of a wave of ‘80s Japanese imports at a time when the country’s manufacturers began to transform their cars from practical, fuel-efficient grocery getters to road-hungry track beasts. One of the most modifiable cars ever, the Supra A70 came fast off the line—but almost dared you to make it faster.
The Supra MKiV from the early ‘90s is considered the pinnacle of the model’s line, featuring a legendary iron-block twin turbocharged 3.0-liter 2JZ engine that is still coveted by engine swappers today.
My Supra Connection
Six-year-old me didn’t understand things like horsepower or torque or turbochargers, of course. But I do remember the day a Supra showed up in our driveway. It was a silver/grey Supra Celica L-Type with black trim that looked fast even when it was standing still.
I loved this car not just because of its performance (powerful) or its price (reasonable), but because of how it unlocked my imagination in ways no other car could. Its digital instrument cluster, sleek profile and all-black interior made it feel more like I was sitting in a futuristic cockpit than a car. It was the closest my Star Wars-loving self would ever get to flying a real X-wing.
Toyota clearly leaned in to the Supra's Tron-like abilities in this sweet '80s ad. (Source: Flickr/Alden Jewell)
Strapping into the Supra always felt like the beginning of an adventure, whereas stepping into my Mom’s Toyota Cressida felt like I was going to the dentist.
Naturally, I couldn’t wait for the day when I’d have a Supra of my own, looking forward to juicing the engine and taking it for a run down the long stretch of empty road by the airport where you’d rarely see a cop car.
But years later, as I was slowly saving up my Supra down payment by delivering pizzas to drunk college students in the go-go ‘90s, Toyota made an announcement that truly broke my heart: The Supra would no longer be sold in America.
A New Supra Chapter
Sadly, I never had the chance to go the Supra route in its initial production run. But with the new Supra expected to hit dealer showrooms sometime this year, I and gearheads all over the world will now have a second crack at this legendary car whose specs and details have already become the subject of more intense internet debate and speculation than the ending of Game of Thrones.
And while I can’t say that I’ll be the first one through the door to put down $50k on one, there’s a good chance I’ll wait for a low-mileage, pre-owned version to cross the Fair app, so I can hear the purr of the turbo-charged engine and know the feeling of sitting at a red light and waiting for a liftoff of my own.