What If? 1999 Toyota Supra
Welcome to What If, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. We’ll be taking you back in time—and possibly forward into the future—to meet alternative-universe automobiles. Even better, our time machine is working well enough to bring “short take” reviews along with the photographs and advertisements. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!
(Originally published in Automotive magazine, August 1998)
It’s fair to say that nobody saw this coming—at least not until recently. As most readers will recall, Toyota revealed eighteen months ago that the Japanese government had withdrawn its support from the second-generation Prius project due to the country’s Great Recession and banking crisis. This left Toyota holding the bag on a multi-billion-dollar project. At nearly the same time, a surprise unionization vote at BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina plant threw the future of the firm’s North American manufacturing plans into crisis, resulting in a very public series of disagreements among the normally secretive Quandt family on topics ranging from a successor to the 8-Series coupe to the production schedule for the X5 sport-utility vehicle.
This was the start of a beautiful, if possibly dysfunctional, friendship. In late 1997, BMW and Toyota announced the signing of a wide-ranging, long-term partnership in which BMW will pay Toyota to develop the majority of its next-generation cars. BMW also agreed that Toyota would assume the management and operation of Spartanburg starting January 1, 1998, a whirlwind change that resulted in an 87-day production halt at that plant while everything from the payroll system to the cafeteria was revamped to meet Toyota standards. Earlier this year, the companies announced some additional results of this partnership: The next-generation 7-Series will be based on the upcoming Lexus LS430, with styling by Chris Bangle’s design department. The 5-Series will be a development of the Toyota Aristo sedan, while the next-generation Toyota Harrier and Lexus RX will use the BMW X5 as their platform.
Oh, and there’s this: The BMW M Coupe has been discontinued, replaced on the Spartanburg line by the suspiciously familiar breadvan you see above. The M Roadster will continue in production, as will the Z3 roadster; they’ll feature a small “Built by Toyota in Spartanburg, SC” plate on the radiator support. (The non-M Z3 coupe, which sold approximately three copies to crazy people? Straight down the memory hole, never to be seen again.)
Let’s get the obvious part out of the way: in almost every aspect except for front and rear styling, this is a 1998 BMW M Coupe. What does it say about the styling of the original car that the Toyota front and rear changes feel like at least a minor improvement? The entire clip forward of the A-pillars is new, and though it looks like the front end of the fourth-generation Supra, it shares no critical dimensions with that sheetmetal. Out back, a new decklid is framed by Toyota-esque taillights and rear-quarter stampings with a little more metal in them, replacing the L-shaped tails of the BMW variant with a nice scallop.
There’s some irony here; the original M Coupe was subject to some harsh cost controls during its genesis, and one of those controls involved using the maximum possible number of Z3 roadster panels. Could Bangle’s team have done a better job with a free hand? It’s hard to say, and in any event the new car is the work of the famed CALTY team at Toyota. While none of the CALTY members would talk about the new Supra on the record, one stylist agreed to one anonymous comment, and it was this: “If the 1990 Celica was our passion project, this is more like the job you take working as a janitor at a peep show, just to make sure you stay ahead of your crack habit.”
Mechanically, the Supra shares all components with the M Coupe, including the invigorating (but not quite Euro-spec) 240-horse inline-six, five-speed manual transmission as the only choice, and an unsophisticated rear suspension derived from the E30 sedan. The wheels are Toyota-styled but produced by BMW’s suppliers, and they are the same size as those found on the M Coupe.
If you want changes, they’re found on the inside, where robust Toyota-sourced fabrics in a variety of contrast colors replace the bargain-basement leather used on Spartanburg BMWs. A few of the switches are different, although they reside in the same center stack, while the dashboard is still recognizably a VDO product. A Toyota spokesperson said that most of the interior switchgear will be “up to Toyota spec” for 2000, and that those improvements will spill over to the BMW-badged products from South Carolina. Future sound systems will be produced by Panasonic, but for this year the stereo is the same as the old one, minus the “BMW Business” branding.
We met the new Supra at a press event in South Carolina earlier this month; we can report that it rides and drives exactly like an M Coupe. This includes the Bavarian-branded predecessor’s somewhat challenging behavior at the limit, as was proven by a journalist from another publication who exited the parking-lot autocross course backwards and put the Supra’s unlovely extended spoiler into a Coke vending machine, showering executive editor Linda Jeanamood with Mountain Dew and bringing the day to a sudden, sodden halt. We won’t shame the person responsible by naming them, of course.
(Okay, it was Felson, from Car and Steerer. Don’t worry; he’s fine.)
How does this car compare to the last one to wear a Supra badge? Why, it’s better in all respects, from the 0-60 time to external visibility. One could argue that BMW should have been designing Toyota’s sports cars all along. It seems unlikely that anyone will ever get excited again about the old Supra, with its porky curb weight, generic styling, and ancient straight-six engine featuring none of BMW’s sonic character. If you have one of the old Supras, you should sell it now before it becomes utterly valueless. This is the Supra you, and everyone else, will want.
Want one more piece of good news? The 1999 Supra starts at $39,900, a few grand cheaper than BMW was charging for the M Coupe last year. Hey, as long as they don’t turn the 3-Series into a Camry, we kind of like this partnership. Not that such a thing could ever happen. Can you imagine BMW selling a front-wheel-drive mass-market sedan as a prestige product? Us neither.