A Somewhat Biased Review of the 1989 Toyota Supra

This is sort of a played-out concept: a random person on the internet does a review of their own car, driven by some sort of overzealous fantasy of launching a YouTube channel into a fabulous hundred-thousand-subscriber empire. I mean, that worked for some people: David Patterson, Mr. Regular, that guy from Vehicle Virgins, and if you wanna get technical with it, Rob Dahm too. I’d love to get to review all kinds of different cars, but for now, I’m gonna stick with my first car. My 1989 Toyota Supra. Naturally aspirated. Automatic. Those last two notes tend to disappoint most people thinking about Supras, or even performance cars in general. It’s so common that I’m at a Cars and Coffee or a weekend meet, and I’ll see someone walk up to my car, check it out because “hey, Supras are cool,” then look inside, realize it’s an automatic, and walk away with shattered hopes and dreams. That’s the thing though- Supras are some of the most overhyped cars on the road, thanks to a few cheesy one-liners performed by the Iron Giant and a guy whose image has been milked harder for knockoff merch over the last four years than any cash cow deserves. Not only are Supras overhyped by a series of high-budget, low-plot films, but they’re horrendously overpriced to match, similar to the AE86 Toyota Corolla’s “Initial D Tax.” 3rd generation Supras, also called either the A70 or MKIII depending on who you talk to, saw a dip in value for a few years, but prices of good condition cars are surging back into the realm of unreasonable. Fourth generation cars like the ones used in The Fast and the Furious have been enjoying higher-than-MSRP prices for the last 15-plus years, thanks to timeless design and a hero-status shared with Nissan’s R34 Skyline GT-R. Turbo cars of both the MKIII and MKIV generations demand an absurd premium, with MKIV turbos with the 2JZGTE taking the cake, hovering around $40,000 minimum for a running car— a running, twenty-year-old car. That’s right: every Supra sold in the United States was built at least two decades ago. Get ready for that hype train to derail– most stock Supras are NOT fast cars by modern standards. A stock 2JZGTE MKIV is respectable, with a zero-to-sixty time between 4.1 and 5.5 seconds depending on the year and the transmission, making it almost as quick as its distant relative, the brand new Lexus LC500. Meanwhile, a stock, naturally aspirated MKIII supra is rated a bit faster than the zero-to-sixty time of a brand new Honda Fit (with vtec!) between seven and eight seconds. Turbo Supras are also amazing modding platforms; a few thousand dollars into reliability mods and a good boost controller can almost double your wheel horsepower on a MKIII or MKIV. This is not the case with the naturally aspirated, automatic MKIII. Essentially, this car has the worst power-to-weight ratio of any third-generation Supra that could be bought new in the United States. It wasn’t the heaviest Supra available; that honor went to the turbo-automatic cars with the sport roof and traction control. Still, it’s up there; my Supra hasn’t been weighed by me or anyone else I know, but as equipped it’s supposed to be between 3600 and 3800 lbs. Without people in it. Put simply, the Supra is a boat. But boats have engines too! Third generation Supras used a lovely little not-so-little engine called the 7M, an undersquare 3-liter inline-six with an iron block built by Toyota and an aluminum head developed by Yamaha. The official designation for the engine was 7M-GE for the naturally aspirated models: a 7th generation M series engine with performance wide-angle DOHC head (G) and multi-point fuel injection (E). The Turbo engines were similarly named 7MGTE, with the T simply referring to the turbocharged induction system. The 7M is mocked by the masses, notorious for being the most unreliable Toyota engine ever built; oddly enough, the 7M’s constant head gasket failure isn’t a design problem like the Ford Focus RS’s Ecoboost timebomb, but was instead a manufacturing issue: across all years of the A70 Supra, 7Ms had improperly torqued head bolts from the factory, leading to premature coolant/oil smoothies after a few tens of thousands of miles. Just by retorquing the head bolts, or more prudently replacing the head bolts with properly installed ARP studs, 7MGTEs can be made to reliably hold near 20psi of boost through the stock turbo, or the turbo can be replaced to cram even more air into the stock 6:1-ish compression cylinders. The 7MGE came from the factory with dual overhead cams, wide angle valves, forged connecting rods, hypereutectic pistons, 9.1:1 compression, and a 6500 RPM redline. All of those fancy specs got the naturally aspirated engines to 200 horsepower and 200ish torque. Turbocharged motors had a lower compression ratio, but came from the factory with about 7 psi of boost spun through a CT-26 turbocharger, bumping numbers to 230 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque; those numbers are either at the crank or at the wheels, depending on who you talk to and how big they need to pretend their dick is. I choose the “200-at-the-crank” number, meaning 200hp and 200ish torque at the crank translates to roughly enough power to spin stock-size tires after passing through an A340E automatic transmission. Speaking of the A340E, let the record state that I’ve only driven two manual Supras, but I’ve driven a decent number of manual vehicles. The notchy R-series transmissions offered in Toyota’s higher-powered vehicles are some of my favorites, and are definitely better in those applications than an automatic. That being said, in the A70 Supra, I think I prefer the automatic transmission. I’m horrendously biased, because I’ve owned this car for over four years now as a daily driver, but the automatic transmission works, and it works well. The Toyota A340E is a 3-speed torque-converter automatic with a 4th gear overdrive, and it does its job smoothly and quickly if you leave it alone. But if you really get into it, and you’re a nerdy piece of shit like me who doesn’t want to spend the money to swap to a manual transmission, there are ways to get the most out of your A340E-driven Supra. Leaving the gear selector in “2” will pseudo-lock you in second gear, but actually give you first and third gear when necessary (if you’re at Wide Open Throttle under 20mph or if you run 2nd all the way to redline at Wide Open Throttle), which is convenient for spirited driving in canyons or back roads, as just 2nd gear at redline will have you at speeds that are illegal on pretty much any highway outside of Texas. A few hundred pounds of this car’s near two-ton curb weight come from the “sport package,” and unfortunately, not much of it is actually functional weight. The biggest gain comes from the extra chassis reinforcement added for the “sport roof,” allowing four long-thread allen bolts to be painstakingly loosened to enable the removal of a targa top– one of the most important structural components of the car. Even with the additional bracing, when you take the roof off, the Supra’s chassis flexes like al dente pasta: just enough to make concerning noises, while not noticeably affecting handling performance. The actually performance-oriented stuff involved with the “sport package” includes a 4.1:1 viscous limited slip differential to facilitate tire smoke and oversteer, an adaptive suspension damper setup named TEMS [Toyota Electronically Modulated Suspension] that effectively negates body roll as well as lift and dive under acceleration and braking, and an optional rear wing that supposedly did something for drag reduction (bets are out on that one). This all amounted to a performance gain of almost nothing as far as lap times, but serves to increase driver experience and confidence immensely. Compared to the base model, with a fixed roof, fixed dampers, an open differential, and a five-speed manual transmission derived from the drivetrain in Toyota’s pickup trucks (two-piece driveshaft and all), the premium trim level is massively more enjoyable in the 2010’s and was likely even nicer to own and drive fresh off the lot in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Nice to drive” is very much a subjective term. Some people like a focus on the road, with stiff suspension, unassisted steering, minimal sound deadening, and a loud exhaust; in fact, owning the Supra long enough did convince me to get myself a more spartan “racecar” (a glorious V8 powered Lexus SC400, minus its water-damaged interior). However, the Supra is nicer in a classical sense. Much of its weight comes from sound deadening and a strong frame, designed to challenge the comfortable, supple ride offered from competitors like BMW, Audi, and Mercedes, as Toyota had not yet launched their Lexus brand to take on the luxury mantle. In its normal setting, the adjustable suspension soaks up bumps, and provides smooth cruising along interstates and main streets alike. The climate controls offer a digital thermostat ranging from 65 (arbitrary cold) and 85 (arbitrary hot) degrees Fahrenheit, and blower settings between off/vent and a gale-force blower. The automatic setting does function well, managing to keep the set temperature fairly steady. The speaker arrangement is elegant, providing main drivers in each door as well as two under the back hatch, plus auxiliary speakers next to each of the rear seats. With current speakers and a newer stereo supporting Bluetooth and Spotify integration, music can be heard clearly and comfortably even with the roof off and the windows down. With the music off, conversations are similarly audible: with the roof on, driver and passenger can carry on at a normal volume, while removing the targa top only requires a slight increase from an “indoor voice.” Alongside sound dampening, the front seats add a significant amount of weight, but also extreme comfort; both have chorded cloth over soft cushion, while the driver’s seat offers 10-way power adjustment including lumbar support, headrest angle, and bolster position. Despite being an absolute whale weight-wise, the Supra handles itself with elegant composure in all but the sharpest of turns, providing an absolute necessity for the sport seats’ tighter grip. With near-50:50 weight distribution, double wishbone fully-independent suspension, and a low center of gravity, it offers smooth handling on the highway while providing sharp turn-in on narrower backroads. While it may not appeal to drivers intent on knife-edge handing and a lightweight, chuckable chassis, the Supra caters well to casual sports car enthusiasts and those desiring a personal luxury car. It’s fast, comfortable, forgiving, and has a fuel tank that will take it from home to work and back every day of the week and then downtown for valet at dinner before roaring up into the canyons Friday night. Driveability is perhaps its greatest strength; the steering is still direct rack-and-pinion and it feels like it, but it uses a fluid powered setup enabling smooth one-handed operation in any circumstances; the 7M’s powerband is smooth and well-balanced, thanks to a variable-length intake manifold that creates an alluring roar at its 3500rpm crossover; its zero-to-sixty acceleration is hampered by short low gear ratios, but taller high gears make merging onto the freeway a smile factory every time. It’s outpaced in a straight line by every new econobox-turned-hot hatch on the road, but as a filthy casual enthusiast, that shouldn’t matter. If it does matter, there’s no reason for you to stay stock– or, for that matter, to start with a naturally aspirated Supra a a go-fast platform. The third Generation of the Toyota Supra is a misrepresented great. It’s like making an honest effort to win the class vote for “most likely to be boring and get a high paying desk job and a hot wife,” but being celebrated like you won the homecoming crown, and expected to also be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. It’s not the hero you want, but the hero you deserve. It’s an exotic travel destination with a Motel Six’s continental breakfast. It’s an effective, well-designed GT car. On top of that, it’s a Toyota, part of a dynasty stemming from the 2000GT, one of the Three Brothers, a visual doppelganger for the Nissan Z, 240SX, and Mazda RX7, and an all around enjoyable and usable vehicle. The MKIII Supra, in its naturally aspirated form, is one of the best ’80s cars you can buy, with its striking outrun-aesthetic looks, an easily-entertained price tag, and a drivetrain straight out of some of the most reliable vehicles on the planet (save for the head bolts, of course). You should buy one. Your friend should get one. Your parents should share a driveway with some. Everyone should experience the MKIII Supra. Actually, don’t get one. That way, mine will be worth more when the inevitable “young Brian O’Connor” Fast and Furious prequel happens.

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