Top Gear’s Toyota Supra Performance-Test pt1: Supra vs BMW Z4

As the first of a set of four performance tests, today we pit Toyota's new coupe against its Z4 sibling

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Never in history have two different cars been mentioned in the same breath more often. The Toyota Supra and BMW Z4, or ‘Zupra’ if you ask the wittier corners of the Top Gear office. I’m sure we all know the story by now: Toyota wanted to revive that Supra badge we all love, but needed a partner to make it financially viable. BMW had the straight-six engine Toyota needed, wanted to keep their Z4 alive, and fancied saving a penny themselves. So Toyota and BMW butted heads and debated for a while, defined the chassis, engine, gearbox and electronics that BMW were putting on the table, stuffed them in a couple of wheely bags and parted ways to go and meet their separate briefs. Kinda like a Ready, Steady, Cook for cars. Fun right?

But hold up a sec. This might seem like the most likely twin test possible, but who built better sports car from the same box of parts, Toyota or BMW? Meaningful head to heads are designed to compare two cars that typically overlap in terms of price, power and function, in the hope it offers buyers in that part of the market some assistance. Although to me I can’t see anyone cross-shopping between a Supra and a Z4, because despite coming from the same base point, the differences are substantially deeper than one has a roof, the other doesn’t – I would go as far to say that they are philosophically polar opposite. For many this comparison is more out of curiosity, than necessity.

Toyota could have called this car a Celica, but no no no, it’s a Supra, and that carries a significant weight of expectation that it’s built by driving enthusiasts, for driving enthusiasts to live up to that name. People that buy a Supra want everyone to know they know their cars, and how they accelerate, handle and sound matters. The Z4 on the other hand had no priory reputation to meet – quite bizarre really given it’s a sports car from a company obsessed with the art of driving fast. The Z4 is a machine for looking fast, moving quick, and with just enough handling chops to make the most of a good road should one present itself.

Ok so let’s start with the powertrains – while Toyota claimed this 335bhp 3.0-litre turbo straight-six has been tuned to their specifications it still feels just the same as the Z4. Smooth, cultured, brimming with muscle, but out of puff beyond 6,000rpm. It’s an awesome engine by any measure and knocks most four-cylinders for six, but behind the mask both cars are the same. Same goes for the gearbox – it’s smooth enough, but very… like the BMW’s. I would also have been nice to see a manual offered in the Toyota honestly, it’s the one historical Supra touchpoint left unchecked.

Strangely enough then, the powertrain isn’t the Supra’s main event, it’s the styling. Makes sense I suppose, as the one part Toyota had total control over they went berserk with. When parked side by side the BMW has a more middle of the road appeal, which is a nice way of saying it has a face only a mother could love, while the Supra with its angry expression and muscled rear is unashamedly sharing you down. Perhaps maybe it’s the hint of 2000GT – Japan’s first proper supercar – in the long bonnet, or whispers of the last-gen A80 Supra in the front and rear, or the utter madness of that multi-layered rear end, but for some reason the Z4’s design doesn’t mean anything to me, it doesn’t move me… but the Supra does.

One could go either way with the Supra’s interior. Some are grateful that the glut of BMW hardware on show means better quality than any other Toyota on sale. On the other hand, some are physically wounded that Toyota didn’t take the time or money to disguise it more carefully. I’m more interested to discover that not only has BMW given Toyota swathes of switches and screens… it appears to have given them the old ones they had lying around. The Z4’s interior feels a generation on. Sneaky, right?. On closer inspection they are running the same screen, knobs and dials, but BMW has taken the time to dress them up in more brushed aluminium and several acres of knurling – visual confirmation of where BMW thinks its customer’s priorities lie.

Let’s talk handling- the Supra’s just so sure-footed, broad-shouldered, stable on the road… and plenty of other clichés any time i think of them. Basically a really good balance between refinement and accuracy – yes, I love doing third-gear drifts on a track like the next guy, but really this is an excellent road car at heart. It’s realistically rapid. The steering isn’t loaded with feel like an Alpine, but it’s honestly precise enough and the body shell is actually stiffer than the LFA, so Toyota definitely isn’t messing about here. I wouldn’t say its the most agile or exciting car in a class that contains greats like the Cayman and Alpine, but it’s an accomplished all-rounder nonetheless.

What’s really fascinating is how BMW can take the very same building blocks as Toyota and produce something so devoid of fun. Let’s just say that when God was handing out sense of humours, the Z4 slept through its alarm. It’s a softer set-up, so it glides over bumps where the Supra shimmies, but besides having a pretty generous amount of power under your right foot, there’s no one component that grabs you by the scruff and asks you to do anything other than sit back and cruise. And for a sports car wearing a BMW badge, that’s a crying shame. I’ll pay the extra few grand and take a Supra, thanks.