They’re twins under the skin and both famous nameplates. But if you’re after the best driver’s car for about $90,000, do you pick the German roadster or Japanese coupe?
Sports-car business cases are trickier than ever these days, and it’s easy to believe it when we’re told neither the third-generation BMW Z4 nor fifth-generation Toyota Supra would likely exist without the two carmakers collaborating.
Thankfully, two famous motoring lineages – going back to the 1930s in the case of BMW’s roadsters – continue. And in traditional form, with no attempt at a ghastly crossover mutation to lure SUV-lovers (hello Ford Mustang Mach-E).
It’s so long since a Supra was last sold that, back in 2002, BMW’s open-top sports car was then known as the Z3 – although the production of both ended that same year. Toyota’s success with the 86 compact sports coupe – another joint venture, with Subaru – and desperate pleadings from Supra fanatics are a couple of very good reasons the Supra is back.
The story goes that when Toyota wanted to create a belated, new-generation Supra, the company flew its chief engineer to Munich to propose a joint venture that would save crucial costs.
So, while the Z4 is a convertible and the Supra a coupe, both share the same BMW platform as well as various other key BMW components. And both cars are built by the same contractor: Magna Steyr in Austria.
Those shared components include BMW’s six-cylinder engine, though to have that in a Z4 you need the $124,900 M40i – well above the starting price for the Supra that features the 3.0-litre turbo petrol standard.
For this natural match-up, then, we’ve also chosen perfect price alignment: $84,900 that could fetch you either a BMW Z4 sDrive20i four-cylinder turbo petrol or a straight-six entry-level Toyota Supra GT.
Pricing and specifications
For two cars comfortably passing $90,000 with on-road costs added, prospective buyers will be relieved to hear there’s a lot of inclusive kit involved.
In the driver-aid department, the Z4 and Supra share blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, anti-dazzle auto high-beams, speed-limit notification, and parking sensors. There’s LED everything for exterior lighting, naturally.
The BMW features a head-up display, whereas that only comes with the Supra GTS, while the regular Supra one-ups the Z4 with adaptive cruise control. As these are driver’s cars, we’re not going to count the fact the Z4 comes with semi-auto parking.
On the comfort/convenience side, there’s little splitting: dual-zone climate, keyless entry and start, and leather sports seats (accented on the Supra) with electric adjustment.
For infotainment, the Z4’s 10.25-inch display trumps the Supra’s 8.8-inch touchscreen, with both sports cars providing integrated navigation, digital radio, and wireless smartphone charging. BMW is alone in offering smartphone integration with wireless CarPlay.
Mechanically, though, there’s more than just an engine-size advantage for the Supra. The Toyota also comes with an adaptive suspension and an active limited-slip differential. Adjustable damping is available as an option on the Z4 – standard on 30i and M40i that are also the only models to feature an LSD.
There were no options on our Supra GT test car as none are available – you simply upgrade to the GTS if you want a few more features (such as bigger wheels, JBL audio or extra paint/trim options).
The Z4 sDrive20i comes standard with an M Sport package bringing a lowered suspension, M Aerodynamics exterior tweaks, M Sport seats and M leather sports steering wheel. Our test car added nearly $10K in options, including adaptive M suspension ($1100), M seatbelts ($560), 19-inch M light-alloy wheels ($900), and metallic paint ($2000).
Toyota charges only $500 for premium paint (which also needs to cover the roof, unlike the BMW).
The original online allocation of Supras is sold out, though Toyota Australia says fresh stock is now available.
Since testing, however, the company has also announced a Supra update for late 2020 that will bring more power and a suspension tweak. Prices are likely to rise, but it questions the logic of buying a Supra before then.
In the cabin
Unlike the previous Z4, BMW’s latest kidney-grilled roadster doesn’t get its own distinct, sporty flavour in the BMW range. Yet while the cabin will look familiar to anyone who’s sat in a new 1 Series or 3 Series, it means perceived cabin quality has gone up another notch – to the point where it’s more comparable with the interior of the Audi TT Roadster.
Such is the excellent execution that we’re even tempted to overlook the silver patterned centre console plastic that looks a bit chintzy. The option-pack M-striped seatbelts look cool, though.
Technology ramps up with BMW’s new 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen and 10.0-inch digital instrument panel.
It’s a relatively practical cabin, too, with long if shallow door pockets, netted storage behind the seats, a ski port, a wireless charging tray, and a twin-lidded centre console section hiding two cupholders and another slot for a smartphone.
When you’re ready for fresh air, press and hold a button on the centre console and the fabric roof peels back in 10 seconds – half the operation time of the previous hardtop version. The roof can be lowered or raised up to 50km/h, which is handy for that unexpected rain shower.
The Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ twins were virtually identical inside, so there’s some relief that the Supra’s cabin design isn’t a Z4 carbon copy.
However, it quickly prompts a game of 'Spot the BMW Parts', because borrowed bits are prominent: stalks, temperature controls, headlight switches, iDrive rotary-dial controller and even an older, smaller (8.8-inch) BMW infotainment display. (Thankfully, on start-up the screen at least initially presents the words ‘Toyota Supra’ and an image of the coupe rather than the convertible.)
And at least unlike the Nissan GT-R, the Supra can’t be accused of having interior quality on a par with much cheaper cars in the same showroom.
Toyota-specific touches include a thinner-rimmed steering wheel that’s also quite upright (and not universally loved by our testers), a single, large Sport button instead of different buttons for different modes as in the Z4, and the Supra’s instrument display is only about 80 per cent digital. The physical, slightly plastic-looking central rev counter certainly looks very Japanese.
Overall, despite the Made In Munich interior parts, the Supra’s cabin doesn’t look or feel as premium as the Z4’s. Cabin storage isn’t quite as useful as it is in the BMW, either. Door pockets are almost non-existent and there’s less centre console storage, though the Supra also features a wireless charging tray for smartphones. The cupholders are similarly placed in a slightly awkward position.
There’s also no barrier between the boot and the cabin, so you wouldn’t want loose items in there when going for a bit of a fang. BMW has increased the Z4’s boot space by 101L by reverting to a simpler, folding fabric roof that, like an MX-5, stores behind the roll hoops without encroaching on the luggage compartment. The boot aperture is wide and there’s clearly more useable space inside than before.
The quoted 281L is close to the Supra’s 296L capacity, which is accessed via a hatch rather than boot lid. That access is narrower but it’s wide inside, and there are some practical elements such as tie-down points, an elastic securing strap, two bag hooks, small side net storage and a 12-volt socket.
On the road
Porsche’s 718 Cayman was an early testing benchmark for the BMW-Toyota twins under the skin, and the Supra’s chief engineer revealed the carmakers considered a mid-engined platform before deciding to stick with the front-engine approach traditional for the two models.
It has also been stressed that BMW and Toyota went their separate ways with engineering once the architecture was established, including different suspension geometry and calibration for the Supra.
First up, the Z4… And with respect to Forrest Gump, it’s BMW steering that’s like a box of chocolates, as you really don’t know what you’re going to get from model to model.
It’s great in the M2 and new 3 Series, but not so great in the new M135i xDrive hot hatch… And here there’s also an aloofness that brings a disconnect between driver and road.
The Z4’s handling is otherwise nicely balanced, and you can enjoy a tourist road if you don’t take the Z4 to the ragged edge – when the BMW’s body takes a moment to catch up with the steering in quicker directional changes. That can also reveal a subtle quiver from the chassis, though the Z4 generally feels impressively stiff and there are no ugly wobbles when you hit bigger bumps.
The Z4 sDrive20i’s 145kW/320Nm four-cylinder turbo produces some aural entertainment from its exhaust – which sounds even better with the roof down. Performance is just a bit uninspiring; you can work the accelerator pedal hard for not particularly significant gain in forward momentum. The engine’s outputs are certainly not in any danger of overcoming the grip of the excellent Michelin Super Pilot Sports.
If you don’t find the 20i’s acceleration sufficient – or don’t like the idea of 6.6 seconds 0–100km/h being slower than a VW Golf GTI – you’ll need to find another $20,000 just to get a more powerful version of the turbo-four in the 30i. Make that $40,000 for the M40i if you want engine-capacity parity with the Supra.
On freeways and country roads, there is some wind noise around where the windscreen and roof meet, as you’d expect, though the Z4’s cabin is commendably quiet for a soft-top. The engine drone at higher speeds isn’t desirable, though.
The Z4’s ride should also be smoother in Comfort mode when the optional adaptive dampers are fitted. No doubt, our 20i test car wasn’t helped by the combination of the standard lowered M Sport suspension and optional 19-inch wheels that are not only bigger but feature thinner rubber.
Sitting on its standard 18-inch wheels, the Supra cushions occupants impressively across urban/suburban streets of typically varying surface quality, while the extra-supple freeway ride is enjoyably relaxing. The Supra’s seats are somehow both more accommodating and more supportive than the BMW’s narrower-feeling pews.
Forward and rearward vision aren't outstanding, but better than you might expect from the Supra’s shallow, wraparound glass area and heavily sloped rear window. The main blind spot is the passenger-side C-pillar, which makes it a little trickier for checking approaching traffic when reversing.
Braking to a standstill from low speeds around town could be smoother. The brakes are better to modulate at faster speeds, though never as brilliant in feel as a Cayman’s.
If the Supra’s steering isn’t quite as magical for feedback as in the 86, it’s still a tool made for drivers – fluid, alert and accurate.
With Sport mode engaged to further stiffen the suspension and add a touch of extra heft to the steering, the Toyota points into corners with more commitment than the Z4 and feels more planted through them, beyond the abundance of grip from the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres.
There’s an entertaining agility also beyond the BMW, if not quite a match for the ultra-athletic mid-engined Cayman that’s 130kg lighter.
However, you’ll have to spend more than $200,000 on the Porsche to get the same number of cylinders as the inline six that’s a strong part of the Supra’s appeal, even if the nameplate’s purists would rather it were built by Toyota rather than BMW.
It’s true it still sounds like a BMW turbo six despite Toyota’s different engine tuning, but there are many more upsides.
The 250kW/500Nm 3.0-litre is super-tractable, super-flexible, and sounds terrific as it pulls hard through the auto’s eight gears. Toyota quotes 4.4 seconds for the sprint to 100km/h, though the Supra feels even quicker than that.
The engine is also virtually lag-free. While it is expectedly at its most responsive in Sport mode, the six-cylinder remains reassuringly alert in Normal without feeling toey.
As in the Z4, the eight-speed gearbox is a slick performer and capable of managing rapid gear-shuffles effectively during enthusiastic driving. Using the paddle-shift levers still feels more natural, even if they could feel more tactile in both cars.
It’s a great pity the Supra isn’t offered with a manual gearbox. A six-speed stick-shift is available as a no-cost option on the four-cylinder 20i Z4.
Computer indications suggested from our testing that there’s a minimal fuel penalty for the bigger engine here. The Supra used an average of 11.2 litres per 100km compared with 10.5L/100km for the Z4. (Respective official figures are 7.7L/100km and 6.5L/100km.)
The late-2020 update for the Supra will lift power to 285kW, matching the same 35kW increase BMW is giving the Z3 M40i.
With the motoring landscape overpopulated with SUVs, the existence of these new-generation sports cars is a win-win for petrolheads.
For the keenest drivers, it’s the Toyota that’s the clear pick of these $85,000 twins.
The Z4 still isn’t the Porsche Boxster rival we’d like it to be, and it could do the grand-touring aspect better, too. Yet, there’s still plenty to appreciate about this BMW’s open-top motoring experience, its luxury two-seater cabin, and the fact it’s more practical than its predecessor.
The Supra isn’t perfect, either, and it’s arguably not the sensation the 86 was when it arrived. It needs more Toyota-ness to the way it looks inside and the way it sounds. A manual gearbox option would be ideal, too, while we would wait for the late-2020 update.
But just like the smaller 86 that was another joint venture, this is another great driver’s car wearing a Toyota badge.
How times have changed.