There’s an unusual family feud going on in the car world. The recently launched BMW Z4 and Toyota Supra are twins under the skin, a set of sports cars with near-identical appeal chiefly separated by a roof style and a badge.
(That’s a German badge versus a Japanese one, a factor that will be decisive in the minds of some purchasers.)
Unsurprisingly, BMW chose to run with an upmarket roadster configuration with a folding canvas lid, while Toyota opted for a more track-focused coupé style with a fixed metal roof.
Now, it’s up to buyers to choose between the two. And me, since I’ve driven the two choices and have some definite preferences.
Toyota has a key selling point, because the Supra has been missing from showrooms for decades, creating instant demand for a back-from-the-dead sports car hero. BMW, on the other hand, is launching the third-generation Z4, a continuation of a long-running model line.
A Supra hero of yore? Not quite
Yes, the Supra nameplate is both iconic and nostalgic. Yet anyone who declares the original Toyota Supra was a benchmark Japanese supercar of the 1980s was clearly not there. It was lardy, not particularly sharp or quick, and not as much fun as it appeared.
Compared with the whip-quick Nissan GT-R of the time, the car nicknamed Godzilla, there was no comparison; the Supra was more of a grand touring coupé.
Yet thanks largely to BMW, the Supra is back. It’s aspirational in all the best ways, from the look-at-me styling to a howling turbocharged six-cylinder engine and old-school rear-wheel drive for people who like to hustle through corners.
It’s only a two-seater, but sports cars have always been selfish and there is enough space in the boot for a weekend getaway.
Just make sure you can slide down into the shrink-wrapped cabin before you commit, because the sporty Supra is not a car for sticky old knees and hips.
An unlikely alliance
The story of the born-again Supra comes with more turns and tangles than a game of Twister.
It's not really a Toyota because it’s all BMW under the skin, from the engine and chassis to the infotainment system. So it’s a German-Japanese mash-up.
Collaboration between strange bedfellows is becoming a familiar pattern to satisfy buyers who want something special that is otherwise too costly for car companies to create in low volumes.
Toyota already has similar experience; its 86 sports car was a joint venture with Subaru, producing one of the finest drives on Australian roads today. Although it’s actually two cars as co-developer Subaru has the twin, the BRZ.
With the Supra, Toyota researched a comeback plan and realised it was going to be too costly and take too long for a company mostly focused on making money.
The birth of twins
A big twist in this tale is the personal intervention of Akio Toyoda, the latest scion of the Toyota empire but also a super-keen car enthusiast.
He realised a hook-up with BMW, which had already committed to the next generation of its Z4 roadster, could tick the boxes for a new-age Supra. A plan for non-identical twins was hatched.
The companies also confirmed a joint production plan for a factory in Austria, which would boost volume and make the end results more profitable on both sides of the world.
Spot the difference
Now the Supra and Z4 have both arrived in Australia and are going head-to-head.
The BMW offers the benefits of open-air motoring from a body designed by Calvin Luk, the talented young Aussie stylist. It’s a great choice for a leisurely weekend jaunt, but also adept for a twisty Sunday morning blast.
The question is, do you want to drive a drop-top for 365 days of the year for a handful of those fresh-air fun of sunny days and balmy evenings ?
There are a variety of choices in the BMW engine room, and plenty of options to make it feel as special as that badge implies.
The Supra is more sharply focused. For just under $100,000 it comes with a single engine, a slick eight-speed automatic gearbox, and a taut coupé body that is an edgy design standout.
It drives as you would expect of a car that’s a BMW in all but name, with crisp responses to all the controls and a lovely, flowing balance in corners. It can also stop and turn and go in the best sports car style.
Finding the Toyota connection can be tough once you’re inside, because all the controls – and even the infotainment system – are off-the-shelf BMW parts that would be too costly and complicated to tweak for a single Supra. Perhaps they will change in the future.
But it barely matters when you hit the Start button and hit the road, because this Supra delivers everything that was promised back in the ‘80s, and more.
As for aesthetics, it comes down to personal taste. The BMW is a touch more elegant, while the Supra takes a tough stance.
Forced to choose after driving both, I would go for the Z4. It’s the original in this set, and every bit of its character – from the characterful engine note to the taut chassis response – is BMW to a tee.
There is something super-special, too, about an open-air drive on the right day and the right road. And if the weather is poorly, with winter rain or blazing summer sunshine, you can always raise the roof to create a BMW coupé.