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There used to be a school of thought that the Toyota Supra was a second division footballer's car. Powerful, athletic, but perhaps not quite subtle enough to make the top grade. The latest recipe, however, is certainly more Manchester United than it is Doncaster Rovers. On paper, the new Supra looks to be a car for the elite. . .

This is the third evolution of the Supra, latest in a family line that has been nothing if not brash and something of an antithesis to the quiet, tasteful designs of the rest of Toyota's range over recent years. That's not to say that Supras were particularly ugly cars, far from it, more that they retained the over-fussy design detailing of which most other Japanese cars were relieved some time ago.

The last version of the Supra, the Turbo, looked particularly flash, and was every bit as fast as it looked, but its potential entry into 'supercardom' was really frittered away in the chassis department. It was, literally, a huge handful on the limit, no doubt to the disappointment of owners who'd parted with £20,000-plus for the privilege.

That car was never an ace in any one department, despite being very competent in many, and never captured the imagination in the same way as the sensational MR2. No doubt Toyota hopes to have eradicated that Supra's shortcomings with its all-new model, which has received a price hike commensurate with its improved technical specification.

Making the new Supra look right would be a start. Thankfully, the two-plus-two coupe body is devoid of its predecessor's fussiness. The end result is by no means radical, but the expanse of sculpted metal is well proportioned and has an imposing sense of purpose as it sits on massive alloy wheels that appear to be crammed improbably into their arches. Sensual, seamless curves replace slats, rubbing strips and shut-lines, while neatly cowled headlamps replace fashionable (in the '70s) pop-ups.

This is a car that is, aesthetically, bang up-to-date. Unfortunately, it has one flaw - in the shape of a hideous rear wing, somewhat reminiscent of those seen on ungainly US musclecars of the '60s. This is the overstated focal point, and it has a detrimental effect on the car's visual appeal, though it does yield useful positive downforce at speed. Some observers, particularly young lads, drooled over it as they would a slow-mo action replay of an Ian Wright goal.

Otherwise, the Supra offers rather greater styling sophistication; lamp clusters for example, both front and rear, are evidence of what can be done with such practical and necessary elements.

However successful (or not) the Supra may be externally, Toyota has greatest need to prove the calibre of what lies beneath the lightweight monocoque. Here, only the familiar three-litre, 24-valve, dohc straight six engine is retained from the old model, albeit suitably modified. Two small air-intercooled turbos are operated individually or sequentially, depending on engine speed, so not only does the unit now produce a useful 326 bhp at 5600rpm, but 90 per cent of the whopping 325 lb ft peak torque is available all from way from a measly 1300 rpm to 4500. Given its flat torque curve, the engine is, of course, supremely flexible.

Even more impressive than the flexibility, is the awesome performance. The Supra has probably more sheer grunt than any other 'non-exotic', and, unsurprisingly, Toyota claims not only a sub-five second dash to 60mph, but a theoretical top speed of something approaching 180mph were it not electronically restricted to a mere 155. Somewhat amazingly, fuel consumption of over 27 mpg at 75 mph is also claimed, though on our test, with mixed driving conditions, we could not quite average 20 mpg. Having a fuel capacity of over 17 gallons, the Supra's range shouldn't be far short of 400 miles with a restrained driver at the helm.

Toyota has collaborated with German company Getrag in the design and construction of the six-speed gearbox, with sixth being an overdrive ratio rather than the last cog in a close-ratio 'box. Another familiar non-Japanese name, Torsen, provides the limited-slip differential which uses a simple but effective gearing system to combat wheelspin. Traction is also aided by TRC (traction control), which not only affects the throttle and the ignition timing, reducing power to the spinning rear wheel, but also acts on the rear brakes.

New technology is continually updated but the best traditional ideas will keep on making a return hence all-round double wishbones and coil-springs over dampers in the latest Supra suspension configuration. The aim is to reduce unsprung weight and achieve a lower roll-centre than that of its predecessor, thus producing more neutral handling. Look at every Grand Prix car, with or without active suspension, and you will see double wishbones . . .

Brakes were never a problem with the old Supra, but they have still been changed. There are, of course, large ventilated discs all-round, together with four-channel G-sensor ABS (a Toyota innovation which can modulate each brake independently in tricky conditions, or while cornering). With features like this, it is clear that Toyota is gunning for prestige heavyweights. Porsche beware.

Although the new Supra is shorter in length than the old, it is still a large car, and one of an increasing number of two-plus-twos in which the 'plus two' might as well be a golf bag. Driver and passenger are given generous leg and headroom (even for the tall), but in the rear. . suffer little children, who will spend entire journeys staring into the back of your seat. Adults in the back? For a trip of any distance over five miles, forget it! Luggage? And that too. It has a shallower 'boot' area than a Porsche 968.

Driver comforts, however, are many. The sumptuous cockpit allows a perfect seating position via precise electrical adjustment of the fine-leather seats and the manual manoeuvrability of the steering wheel, but greater lumbar support would be welcome. Backache over a long journey does not exactly do wonders for one's temperament when crawling along the M1 at five mph. While you're there, at least there are plenty of things within the console to keep your mind occupied.

The dials are simply massive, very clear and readable in a retro kind of way, though they look rather cheap. The rev counter, unusually, is sighted in the middle — perhaps for the benefit of the serious red-line fetishists. The switchgear stalks are conventional and straightforward but minor buttons are scattered in a most haphazard manner, all over the expanse of sombre black facia which swoops from door to centre console. The equipment level is, shall we say, more than adequate. To ensure that the Supra remains in its owner's possession for more than five minutes, a sophisticated security system is employed. This primes the alarm even when the car is unlocked while unattended, such as when you shut the doors at a filling station. It was activated once (without touching the panic button) with the key in the ignition and passengers on board, which is a trifle embarrassing in a car this obvious.

In the unlikely event that the Supra is stolen by 16 year-olds, the good news (for them, not the owner) is that both driver and passenger will receive the protection of an air-bag when they have the inevitable crash . . .

Avoiding accidents has been an integral part of Toyota's task when cleaning-up the Supra's act, and this becomes all too apparent when driving the car hard. Plodding round town, the Supra is docile, and easy to drive. The speed-related steering is very light at low velocities, but the drooping snout, thick C-pillar, tall head-restraints and enormous girth mean that parking could become a whole new adventure. With its abundance of torque, the engine will pull cleanly from rest and though the short gear lever has precise, firm movements, one can get away without using it for the most part on urban roads. Refinement isn't at all bad at these speeds — engine and road noises are unobtrusive — and the ride, while not the best, is certainly superior to some of its Japanese rivals.

Drive the car faster and, on occasions, you can feel the technology working. Give it plenty of revs at rest, sidestep the clutch and the strobing TRC light on the dash accompanies the momentary tramping - then you're off on an ever-increasing surge (to the sound of a prominent turbo whistle), that, were it not punctuated by gearchanges, would feel exactly like being in an airliner on take-off - complete with tyres thumping over ridges.

This is fast, but it feels normal.

However, if you floor the accelerator from a crawling pace, after a moment's delay, there's a strange feeling as engine response is not proportional to throttle input until the car is well under way.

This does not feel normal.

It takes a little adjusting to, as you want to control the power at will, but the computer decides to tame your right foot. Higher up the rev range and at higher speeds, or with the TRC switched off, this sensation is less detectable. There's certainly nothing unsatisfactory about forward progress in terms of sheer speed. The power is immense, and at 100 mph plus, when the aerodynamics play a more important role, the Supra just knuckles down and flies along with such impressive stability that it feels like half the speed.

Bends throw up greater challenges to the 'intelligent' componentry. Driving quickly into tight corners, the Supra understeers on entry before the TRC kicks in and tightens the line.

A progressive increase of throttle on a constant radius fast bend will eventually send all the sensors into overdrive, and before the car enters any kind of lateral slide, the frustrating retardation process begins and tidies everything up.

Again, this feels unnatural - you can have your right foot planted to the floor with neither revs rising nor speed increasing, and in more extreme cases you can actually feel the brakes being applied.

Switch off the TRC and, with such an abundance of power, brutal powerslides are possible - and satisfying - but if liberties are taken it is possible to wear out the enormous patience of the huge Michelin Pilots. If the Supra does snap at you thus, you'll need to be quick to catch it. Toyota has by and large eliminated the old Supra's naughty habits. But not entirely . . .

With or without TRC, the Supra is not nimble or agile enough to be truly satisfying or quick on twisty roads. Despite weightsaving engineering, it is not a light car, and though much commendable work has been done to increase engine response, there is always a slight stammer before things get going. There's no denying the car's ability over faster terrain where the electronic gimmickry isn't tripping over itself and sheer pace will make it stiff competition for many more expensive supercars. It corners with little roll and is largely unsettled by bumps and undulations. Providing there aren't any surprises on the road for the driver, the Supra will remain composed.

On uneven surfaces the tyres will tramline - not excessively, but enough to be detectable through the anaesthetised steering. They will also rumble enough to cause comment, while the suspension thumps over ridges. None of this inflicts great distress (though prolonged tyre roar will eventually become wearing), and the cabin is generally a soothing environment, even at high speeds.

Verdict

Wild and alternative, this is the brashest Supra yet. But, were it not for the gross rear wing, it would also be the most tasteful. Nissan 300ZX, or even Honda NSX buyers may consider it, but whether a potential Porsche 968 owner would bring him/herself to do the same is debatable.

One has to realise that with such genuine supercar performance, and the high level of technology making the driving experience more accessible to a lower common denominator, it is good value at £37,500 (for an extra £260, Toyota offers an advanced one-day driving course based at Silverstone).

However, we at MOTOR SPORT feel that European drivers are increasingly being subjected to the air conditioning, cruise control, electric everything mentality that proliferates in the States, at which market the Supra was undoubtedly aimed.

Reduce the car to seven-eighths scale, rid it of all the electrically powered 'luxuries', integrate the rear wing with more subtlety, add some more feel to the steering and you'd have the makings of a great sports car.

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