Like the legend of the Yeti, there are few cars more mysterious than the Toyota Supra.
When Toyota wowed Detroit in 2014 with its curvy FT-1 concept, the automaker set off speculation about the return of the Supra sports car last seen on U.S. shores in 1998. Detroit shows have come and gone for four years with hopes of a new Supra dashed, but gearheads have been atwitter with leaked spy shots of racy-looking sports cars co-developed by Toyota and BMW on the same platform in Graz, Austria. BMW showed its roadster concept, replacing the Z4, in Pebble Beach last fall.
This week, ahead of the Geneva Auto Show in March, Toyota finally gave Supra watchers a sighting when it teased “a modern racing concept (that) signals Toyota’s commitment to bring back to the market its most iconic sports car.”
The accompanying photo released by Toyota is as fleeting a glimpse as any Yeti wilderness shot, but the similarities to the FT-1 concept are unmistakable: dual-bubble roof, duck-tail trunk-lid and big wing.
Headlined “The Legend Returns” on Toyota’s website, all signs point to Supra.
“It will be a Supra,” says Stephanie Brinley, auto analyst with IHS Automotive, which first reported the Toyota-BMW partnership back in December 2013. “Toyota and BMW have been working on this for quite a while.”
The Supra is a reminder that, before it became the world’s best-selling purveyor of vanilla appliances like the Camry sedan and RAV4 ute, Toyota sold swagger, too. Its Supra was the equivalent of a Japanese Mustang or Camaro. Evolved from the Celica coupe, it became its own badge in 1986 as an affordable performance muscle-car with a ferocious, upper-trim fired by a twin-turbo V-6. A big, aerodynamic wing kept it on the ground.
The last Supra appeared in the U.S. in 1998. Sightings of camouflaged Supras have dovetailed with vows by Toyota Chairman (and part-time racer) Akio Toyoda to bring back sex appeal to the brand.
“Toyota wants to be more performance-oriented,” says IHS’s Brinley. “The Supra helps inject more excitement into the brand.”
The Supra would be the perfect halo for a rejuvenated Toyota that has already brought some of that sex appeal to the Camry sedan with an all-new design for 2018.
After Toyota’s teaser Monday, the speculative furnace was fueled further by leaked photos and specs in Japan’s “Best Car” magazine. The pictures are an evolution of the FT-1 concept seen in Detroit. The specs claim a 3,284-pound car with 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque from a BMW-sourced turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-6 cylinder engine.
The engine would be shared with its BMW roadster sibling reportedly called the Z5. Weight for the Supra is listed at 3,284 pounds, making the car lighter and more powerful than the last turbocharged Supra seen on U.S. shores in the 1990s.
The Toyota-BMW sports car partnership is typical in age where safety and emissions regulations have made it difficult for manufacturers to justify the development of low-volume sports cars. Other recent sports cars have also been joint ventures like the Mazda Miata and Fiat 124 Spider, and the Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ.
“The Supra-Z4 development is along the lines of the Fiat-Mazda partnership,” says Brinley. “Both Toyota and BMW wanted a new sports car with similar performance goals – but neither could justify the development costs to do a new chassis by themselves. We expect global sales of both cars to be about 44,000 units initially, settling into 30,000 annually.”
All eyes will be on Geneva for another Supra sighting in March.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.