The day I drove a Toyota Supra in the Targa Tour NZ

TOYOTA GR SUPRA
Base price:
 $99,990.
Powertrain and performance: 3.0-litre turbo-petrol inline six, 250kW/500Nm, 8-speed automatic, RWD, fuel economy 7.7 litres per 100km/CO2 177g/km (source: RightCar), 0-100kmh 4.3 seconds.
Vital statistics: 4379mm long, 1292mm high, 2470mm wheelbase, luggage capacity 290 litres, 19-inch alloy wheels with 255/35 front and 275/35 rear tyres.
We like: So easy to drive fast, smooth straight-six engine, looks the (Supra) part.
We don’t like: Intimate cabin might be too… intimate, transmission needs more aggression.

Greg is kind of a go-to Kiwi guy for global motoring and motorsport adventures. He’s a director of Overland Journeys/Rally Tours. It takes people all over the world, driving themselves or spectating top-level motorsport in (very) interesting places.

He’s an accomplished competitor himself and, judging from our quick chat, a collector of some of my bucket-list cars: Lancia Delta Integrale and Fiat 130 V6 (you know, The Italian Job one) among them.

Greg Paul, Director at Overland Journeys

JOHN COWPLAND/ALPHAPIX Man and a mountain: Limited Tour leader Greg Paul. Supra behind.

Anyway, we’re not here to talk about Italian cars. Or stand around talking to Greg.

We’re here to drive a Japanese-German one on the Targa Tour and the reason Greg is so important is that we have to follow him. He’s driving a 2000-vintage Alfa Romeo 156 Twin Spark with 300,000km on the clock, by the way.

Targa with Rally Tours NZ

JOHN COWPLAND/ALPHAPIX A Toyota GR Supra leads a BMW. Not that we mean anything by that.

Toyota New Zealand bravely invited media to take part in the Tour this year, participants each taking half a day and several stages in the new GR Supra.

Targa NZ you probably know. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, it’s a competitive timed event on some of the country’s best roads. That’s the bit for the serious people.

Targa Tour comes along behind on each stage, on the same closed roads: it’s designed for non-competition drivers in non-competition cars, unshackled by a 100kmh speed limit and the centre line.

Targa with Rally Tours NZ

JOHN COWPLAND/ALPHAPIX Your name here. If you’re lucky.

Unshackled, but not unlimited. The Tour groups are broken up into Open, Mid Point and Limited. Nobody gets to hop straight into the higher groups, least of all journalists getting into somebody else’s fast car completely cold.

So we’re in the Limited Group: maximum allowed speed 130kmh. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is when you consider the narrow, sinewy stage roads we’re on. Even the top Open Tour group only gets to do 160kmh… and they have to wear helmets.

So you take a look at Greg’s car and think: we have to stay behind that? Then you spend the rest of the day trying to keep up.

Targa with Rally Tours NZ

JOHN COWPLAND/ALPHAPIX The Tour cars get close at times, but no overtaking allowed.

“It was destined for a wrecking yard so I bought it for $2000,” says Greg. “I’ve had four Targas out of it. It’s just so easy, you turn the key and go.”

And go fast. With speed capped and demanding roads, getting a good flow on a stage is all about confidence (the real kind, not the misplaced variety), being smooth and keeping the momentum up. The driver as much as the car, in other words.

Greg does all of that and if you’re lucky enough to be right behind him (we are, that’s our allocated spot and there’s no overtaking allowed) then you simply do your best to emulate his lines and braking points. Not that he seems to do a lot of braking.

Targa with Rally Tours NZ

DAVID LINKLATER Route book, check. GPS monitor, check. Fire extinguisher… um, well yes, that too.

It’s a great way to get to grips with the GR Supra, a car we haven’t really driven beyond some very slow laps of a very wet Hampton Downs.

It’s not just the swift stuff, either. You have to travel between stages under normal road rules and on the half-day where we were not driving the Tour, we followed the service crews in a second Supra.

Our stint was day three of five, on the second half of the circuitous Targa route from New Plymouth to Whanganui.

Targa with Rally Tours NZ

JOHN COWPLAND/ALPHAPIX Alfa 156 leads the brace of Supras: red ‘safety car’ (just not for this event) front and silver Tour machine rear.

So no helmets, but you kind of feel like you’re wearing one in the Supra anyway, because of the shape of that arched roof that wraps right down around you.

That’s the big difference between Supra and the sister BMW Z4 convertible (the two share a platform and a 3.0-litre straight-six, eight-speed automatic powertrain): coupe versus convertible.

More sports focused it may be, but the Supra is still an incredibly easy car to drive at urban speeds. The straight six (a heritage layout for Supra, although this engine is pure BMW) is super-smooth and delivers peak torque from just 1600rpm. The gearbox is slick. So too is the ride, despite the car’s sporting aspirations and substantial mixed-size footwear.

Targa with Rally Tours NZ

JOHN COWPLAND/ALPHAPIX It’s got the curves: Supra compliant but nicely controlled at speed.

At higher velocity? The steering feels initially aloof but it’s also consistent, quick and precise. It seems even more so when you discover how keenly the Supra turns into corners.

There’s still body roll. This is no tied-down track-day car. But the weight transfer is nicely managed and a bit of squish in the suspension highlights how aggressively the Supra squats down out of corners, thanks in part to a good stability control system and electronic differential.

The engine is sonorous, but understated. It also sounds very BMW, but that’s okay. If it’s good, it’s good to have in the car. Just like BMW switchgear, touch-screen technology and iDrive is also good to have.

Targa with Rally Tours NZ

JOHN COWPLAND/ALPHAPIX An image that sums up Targa Tour perfectly: like an awesome episode of Wacky Races.

If there’s anything lacking for spirited driving it’s the gearbox. It’s astonishingly smooth, but lacks aggression when you’ve got the drive modes wound right up. A bit more pop during gearchanges would add to the high-performance experience.

It all seems so easy, but the key is that there’s enough of an edge to keep sports-car credibility. That’s a tricky balance to achieve and one that demands concentration from the driver, because you can get lulled into a false sense of security by the comfy ride and slick powertrain.

Had a few sweaty palm moments, but my only big indiscretion was on an uphill hairpin bend. Feeling cocky and assuming anything was possible with the Supra’s chassis technology, I gave it a bit too much on the exit and fishtailed dangerously close to a bank.

A good reminder that the Supra is also engineered to be leery in the right hands (not mine), even with the safety aids still turned on.

No harm done and time to use a bit of the Supra’s smooth 250kW. Got an old Alfa to try and catch up to again.

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