(first posted 12/12/2012) Wouldn’t it be fun to go back in time and get a do-over of our car-buying choices? As I sit here contemplating the qualities and my memories of the Mark II Supra, I wonder just what the hell I was thinking when I bought that ’83 T-Bird Turbo Coupe instead? Please, don’t remind me–I know it was a choice made in a moment of typical youthful impulsiveness. The Supra had it all over the noisy, thrashy, live-axle T-Bird: A silky-smooth DOHC inline six with more horsepower; IRS; four-wheel disc brakes; and, not incidentally, Toyota’s superb build and material quality. Live and learn, and then write about it.
If the Supra MK I was something of a Japanese Riviera to be favored for its smooth, soft manners, the Supra MK II was closer to a BMW M3, at least in image if not actual performance. I say that from the perspective of one who lived in L.A. during the Mark II’s heyday, when members of today’s M3 demographic–young, urban, hip, affluent and, quite often, Asian–would very likely have been seen in a Supra Mk II. Gender excepted, that demographic represented the virtual opposite of that for the contemporary Nissan 280 ZX. I may not have been hip or Asian, but I certainly could see myself behind the wheel of a Supra MK II. I couldn’t have said the same about its predecessor or the highly unhip ZX.
The MK II was still Celica-based (top), with an extended front end to accommodate the longer engine. Somehow, this second nose job looks a bit more integral than the first, perhaps because its Japanese designers had envisioned the longer front end from the get-go. The smoother, rounder MK I had been based on the California (Calty) -designed Celica, a Toyota first. This time, Toyota’s Japan-based studio was responsible for the styling, and it shows.
The MK II exemplifies the Japanese love for multiple angles and busy details, especially compared with the organic and simple shape of its predecessor. That may have been the main reason I went for the T-Bird: Its slick aero-styling was much more my cup of (non-green) tea than this generation Celica and Supra.
But to a lover of classic inline sixes, the Supra’s engine was very compelling: A classic inline DOHC 2.8-liter unit that was smooth and quiet, yet quite willing, at least for the times. From today’s vantage point, its power output looks modest at best, peaking at 161 hp in 1986 from 145 hp in 1982. That’s just behind the Mustang GT’s numbers of 157 hp in ’82, and 175 hp thereafter. The Mustang was definitely the performance bargain of the day, but it wasn’t exactly a refined piece of machinery by any measure.
The Celica’s 5M-GE engine was shared with the Cressida, and in may ways differed significantly from earlier members of the venerable M-family of Toyota sixes. Thanks to rocker arms and hydraulic valve lifters, it was the first twin-cam engine to eliminate the need for valve adjustments. Toyota’s electronic engine management system (TCCS) was fitted to 1983 and later versions.
The MK II came in two distinct flavors: L, for comfort, and P, for performance. The P-type had fender flares, beefier tires and suspension tuning, eight-way seats and a limited-slip differential. The L-type’s claim to high-tech fame was its optional fully-digital instrument panel that featured one of the first integrated trip computers–no big deal today, but very hot stuff in 1982. The P-type was the way to go for that reason alone, never mind the more obvious ones.
I had a brief drive in one of these, and the contrast to my Turbo Coupe was pretty stark. In fact, they are pretty much polar opposites despite their similar genres. For better or worse, the TC felt lighter, delicate and nimbler; the Supra, almost Mercedes-solid and far more unflappable over broken pavement, thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension.
The biggest difference, however, was underhood. The TC’s little ex-Pinto four was thrashy when it hit 4500 rpm; above that, it inflicted pain much like a rev-limiter. Its power comes on in a brief mini-burst of turbo boost, unlike the steady, smooth flow of power of the comparatively refined and sophisticated Supra engine–and not at all unlike the silky-smooth six in the W124 300E that eventually replaced the Turbo Coupe in ’85. Now that’s a decision about which I have no regrets.