B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
It's time to start buying cars again. I don't care if you buy a sedan, coupe, convertible or wagon; it's just time. "Why," you ask, "must we give up our comfortable sport-utility vehicles with seating for nine and room for the pooches?" Because the purchase of sport-utility vehicles, trucks and minivans is threatening to further diminish an already endangered species: the sports car.
Just like the spotted owl, blue whale and Florida manatee, the sports cars available in America are vanishing rapidly. The sales of light trucks, which includes sport-utility vehicles and most minivans, has cannibalized the sports car segment for the past decade, killing off many beautiful and wondrous examples of go-fast engineering in the process. In place of high-performance machines that are technological marvels, we now have trucks that are capable of, um, hauling stuff. The Z car has departed, but the Pathfinder flourishes. The MR2 is gone, but Toyota can't keep up with the demand for the 4Runner and Land Cruiser. The Mazda RX-7 with its wonderfully peculiar rotary engine and twin turbos is also deceased; it's been replaced by an all-wheel drive van that is in desperate need of rhinoplasty. Oh, the humanity!
It appears that American icons like the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird may be among the next round of sports cars to drive off into the killing fields. The F-body coupes and convertibles from General Motors are rumored to be in their final life cycle. For those of you who don't know, 1998 is also the last year for the Toyota Supra.
We decided to have one last hurrah with the Supra. We wanted to give it a real workout before it faded from our collective memory like a deceased relative that we saw only during the holidays. With that in mind, we booked some track time at Willow Springs to bid adieu.
Upon settling into the driver's seat of the Supra, the logic of the control design is immediately apparent. Everything that the driver needed to pilot the Supra is within clear view, and all of the secondary controls reside in a pleasant center stack that is conveniently canted toward the driver. Like most Toyota products, the Supra we tested had sound build quality and top-flight materials. The leather seats hugged our sides, without any obnoxious butt pinching, and the big, six-speed shift knob fell readily into our right hand. The Supra's large windshield makes it easy to see out of the front of the car, but the steeply raked rear window, high rear deck, and giant wing spoiler blocked our view out of the back.
Depressing the Supra's clutch and twisting its key results in a solid rumble that reminds you that this car is a serious piece of driving equipment. The six-cylinder, twin-turbo engine makes 320 horsepower and 315 foot-pounds of torque. To manage this power, the Supra has a sturdy transmission unit connected to a heavy-duty clutch, both of which require a fair amount of muscle to operate effectively. Learn to work them smoothly, however, and the Supra rewards drivers with a solid backward push into the seat as the car races to 60 mph in less than six seconds.
Blistering acceleration means little if a car can't zip easily through corners, and here the Supra shines. Most of our drivers turned off the traction control while on the Streets of Willow short track to maximize their throttle steering abilities, and found that they could easily and accurately break the rear end of the car loose without getting pointed in the wrong direction. The steering setup is a rack-and-pinion unit that communicates effectively, reacting instantly to minor course corrections. The Supra's large four-wheel antilock disc brakes were a hit with our more aggressive drivers who liked to wait until the last possible nanosecond before jamming the brakes when entering a turn. The car's beefy four-wheel independent suspension allowed the Supra to corner flatly under the most extreme conditions we could muster.
Under the controlled conditions of the Willow Springs track, the Supra was able to jump to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, and could stop from 60 mph in just 124 feet. On the skid pad, our testers were able to register a lateral force reading of .96 gs, enough to make our food-poisoned technical editor, Karl Brauer, race for the bathroom to revisit that morning's cereal bar. Consider this; these numbers were generated at an elevation of 2,500 feet on a 100+ degree-day. Imagine what this car could do at sea level with the temperature in the mid-seventies.
In addition to performance, the Supra has manageable around-town driveability. With the exception of the heavy clutch and poor rearward visibility, the Supra was easy to live with for a week on the crowded streets of Los Angeles' West Side. The Supra's cargo area, while not huge, is big enough to swallow a large suitcase and two laptop computer bags, and its relatively short length makes it easy to squeeze into a parking space at a crowded lot.
While there may be some finger pointing after its demise, Toyota cannot be blamed for the cancellation of the Supra. The company has tried everything possible to keep this vehicle on the market. In the last two years Toyota has dropped the Supra's asking price by thousands of dollars and reintroduced the six-speed manual transmission in an effort to get people more interested in this vehicle. Unfortunately, it has not worked, and America has lost another fantastic car, as more and more buyers snap up full-size trucks and SUVs (read: Supremely Ungainly Vehicles.)
I know you're wondering, "What can I do to help?" The answer is simple. Look at a car when it's time to replace your Explorer, Rodeo, Grand Cherokee or Pathfinder. I'm certain there is something out there that sits a little lower to the road that can get you and yours to wherever you need to go. More people buying more cars won't bring the Supra back, but it just might save our beloved Camaro and Firebird.
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