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Be glad the Supra exists at all | PH Footnote

Despite sports cars being harder to justify than ever, Dan P reckons we're in a golden period

By Dan Prosser / Sunday, June 09, 2019

You'll be sick to your back teeth of reading about the new Toyota GR Supra not being a real Supra, about platform sharing and the amortisation of development costs and all the rest of it. I know I am. With this piece I don't mean to stoke the not-a-real-Supra debate just as the embers are beginning to fade. Instead, I want to share a little insight into exactly why it's so difficult for a vast car maker like Toyota to embark upon a sports car project in 2019.

The insight isn't mine, but that of Tetsuya Tada, chief engineer of the both the new Supra and the GT86 before it. A man who knows exactly what it takes to bring a sports car to life, in other words. During the Supra launch in Madrid last month Tada-san explained to a small group of journalists - while nursing a 1965 Glenlivet, no less - that no sports car project can lose money. In fact, if any individual model of any type is forecast to drop into the red, it'll be canned. Halo effect? When a project loses money, it has no value whatsoever. That's just how huge OEMs like Toyota operate.

"You have to stay in the black even if it's just a little bit," he explained. "Only then can you talk about brand awareness or halo effect." Tada-san said it was a senior Mazda MX-5 engineer who taught him that. And it was the same engineer who admonished him, in the very early days of the GT86's gestation, for daring to be excited about his forthcoming sports car project. The enormous pressure to keep development costs down would soon snuff out any excitement...

Seven years after its launch, says Tada-san, the GT86 is considered a successful model among Toyota command only by the slimmest margin. And that's a car whose development costs were shared with Subaru. Had it cost only a little more to develop and build, or had sales been only a little weaker, the GT86 would have been classified a failure for ever more. It probably isn't unreasonable to suggest Toyota might never have built a bespoke combustion engine sports car again.

The pressure for any sports car project to more than wash its own face probably isn't new. But what has changed over the past couple of decades, according to Tada-san, is the number of mainstream models that could in some way be adapted into a sports car. He says there just aren't as many rear-wheel drive platforms or suspension architectures nowadays that can be tweaked or fiddled with and used to underpin a genuine sports car. So you have to start from scratch.

What's more, emissions regulations, pass-by noise restrictions and crash legislation have all made the development of a sports car a far costlier and much more demanding process than it ever was. Bring all of those factors together and you're left with many OEMs choosing not to bother with purpose-built sports car at all, and those that do buddying up with another car maker to divide the expense the way Toyota has done with BMW.

I came away from that brief discussion with Tada-san feeling not only that I really must try a 1965 Glenlivet, but also that a minor miracle and a huge amount of board-level wrangling is what it takes for any sports car to make production these days. (It also made me adore the Alpine A110 even more, too, because although it shares its engine with the Renaultsport Megane and certain interior components with other Renaults, it's built on an aluminium platform that isn't shared with any other car. And its double wishbone suspension is bespoke as well. Both must have been very tough decisions that might well have gone the other way.)

It really is a wonder that any sports car - particularly in or around the £50,000 price bracket - gets signed off at all. And yet, when was the sports car market as vibrant and as varied as it is today? With the Toyota GR Supra, BMW Z4, Porsche 718 Cayman and Boxster, BMW M2 Competition and Alpine A110, I'm not sure we've ever had it so good.


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