Things we like
- Another manual hero from an unexpected source
- Lightweighting measures bring ace fabric seats
- Steering and handling tweaks are tangible, too
Not so much
- A GR86 is just as fun and much less money
- While a 718 Cayman remains lighter and more agile
- Toyota expects most buyers to still go auto
Who would have expected Toyota to be the hero we all needed? By the time the mighty-sounding GR Corolla hatchback launches, the Japanese firm’s Gazoo Racing sub-brand will offer four different manual-transmission performance cars – including the Toyota GR Supra 3.0 manual tested here.
Even Porsche isn’t as committed to the art of DIY shifting nowadays. The GR Supra 3.0 MT, added to the sportscar’s range alongside a mid-life update after overwhelming media and customer demand, is a bit of a surprise too. Let’s hope enough people buy them to justify the effort. Because boy, has Toyota put the effort in. While the straight-six turbo engine up front still comes from BMW – it’s shared with the Z4 roadster and higher-tiered 3 Series models, among others – the team at Gazoo has decided to develop its own, unique manual gearbox for the Supra.
Bearing in mind less than a third of buyers are likely to go for it (in Europe, at least), it’s a level of engineering commitment that shows almost flagrant disregard for profit margins. That’s the beauty of having an enthusiast like Akio Toyoda running your company, though. He appears to value the street cred of selling a bunch of bona fide drivers cars over accruing every last cent possible. Why else would a whole new clutch have been developed to latch onto a six-speed manual used in no other product? The rest of the components themselves come from existing Toyota and ZF stock, but the end product is totally unique to the Supra 3.0 MT.
And to help integrate it into the driving experience of a car originally intended to use only an eight-speed auto, the limited-slip differential has been tweaked and the traction control retuned to account for clumsy clutch inputs. Perhaps the nerdiest bit we can see with our own eyes, though – and grab with our own hands. Toyota had to rejig the Supra’s centre console to allow enough clearance between the stick and the climate controls, lest you accidentally mash your hand into the demister during a particularly involved second-to-third upshift. And the gear knob itself has been tweaked from the off-the-shelf part, its weight swelling from 68 to 200 grams to give the shift a more satisfying throw.
It's unusual to hear a car-maker extol the virtues of adding weight, but rest assured that the rest of the manual conversion has saved enough kilos to compensate. Going from auto to manual sheds 17kg alone, while opting for the ‘lightweight’ base spec Supra – with manually adjustable fabric sports seats rather than electrically whirring leather ones – brings the grand total to 38kg. Those seats also sit 1cm lower, benefiting both the sportiness of your driving position and headroom for taller drivers. The fact they’ll also save you several thousand dollars on your bill is just the icing on the cake. The introduction of the MT comes with a minor mid-life refresh for the Supra as a whole, with retuned shocks and steering and a more intelligent stability control system that’s designed to allow for a little more freedom when the car senses uphill hairpins, allowing you to (theoretically, at least) feel the rear axle squirm without having to pre-empt the electronic aids into their more lenient settings.
Sadly, our first drive of the car hasn’t taken in an appropriately twisty Alpine road to test Toyota’s claims. But a dozen or so laps of Circuito Monteblanco in Seville is among the better consolation prizes I’ve received. It’s the perfect opportunity to flex the gearbox and retrain my right arm into shifting duties. Toyota launched this car at the same event as the Euro-spec GR86, and spending two days driving a pair of manual, rear-driven performance cars from the same manufacturer…well, that feels like something I’ll likely never do again. It’s fair to say I savoured every second. Did I also enjoy every second? Pretty much. This isn’t a perfect manual ‘box, but it’s more than up to the task. A couple of times I shifted up to third and briefly lingered on the clutch, feeling like I might have found fifth. I hadn’t, and the vast majority of the time I had full confidence in my actions.
Just having that extra layer of interaction in a car of this level of power and luxury feels like a novelty these days. BMW has never bothered offering a manual option on the Supra’s Z4 cousin, after all. Toyota has also fitted its ‘iMT’ rev-matching software for automated ‘heel and toe’ downshifts; it’s found in the Yaris but not the GR86 (a cost-saving issue, apparently) and it’s very good. You can turn it off too, of course, but in the Supra it’s courtesy of a sub-menu rather than a simple button. In truth, I was never unduly offended by its assistance. It’s always meticulously judged in its blips of throttle and, I’ll be honest, does a better job than I usually muster. If Toyota is to tempt a few stick-shift sceptics into one of these, it’s a handy bit of tech to dangle in front of them.
The rest of the handling feels like a decent step on from before, too. Whether it’s down to the more committed vibe of the new seats and the extra involvement brought on by the gearbox, I can’t fully say, but this feels categorically a better Supra, with alert, precise steering that allows you to really commit with the front end, the rear axle moving progressively behind it. Its 38kg weight loss hardly represents a fad diet, and so this still feels pretty heavy under brakes at the end of Monteblanco’s pit straight. But there’s agility in the corners and – crucially – it’s fun. Though not as outright playful as its more rambunctious GR86 sibling (which is little more than half the price, I should add). “Progressiveness and predictability at the limit is a GR family character,” says engineer – and Toyota Master Driver – Herwig Daenens. “We want to have informative cars. You can have ‘grip grip grip’ easily but if the grip then suddenly falls off you’ll just be scaring your customers away.”
He tells me this as he’s sliding around the manual Supra – yes, masterfully – while I’m firing questions at him from the passenger seat.
The Supra MT is three-tenths of a second slower to 100km/h than the auto, but I’ve not revealed that little morsel until now because I’m hoping it’s as irrelevant to you as it is to me.
This car represents so much more, and as an emblem of how much Toyota wants to welcome keen drivers into its fold – when other car-makers appear to be bolting their doors shut to folk like us – it’s a very appealing proposition.