Automobile

1988 Toyota Supra Turbo A Review: Driving the Ultimate MKIII Supra We Never Got

If you’ve spent a few years elbow-deep in the engine bay of the notoriously finicky 7M-powered Supra, though, there are some immediate small changes that stand out. For example, the base model Supra Turbo of the 80s had a rudimentary karman-vortex based air-flow meter to mete out fuel and air to the straight-six; the Turbo A got a much more advanced MAP sensor for more accurate fueling under boost. The crossover pipe that feeds cooled air from the intercooler to the intake isn’t labeled with the standard “3000” in throwback font—instead, it’s blank and bigger.

The electromagnetic suspension controllers are conspicuously absent from the engine bay. Take a peek into the exposed front bumper vent, and the intercooler is larger than the stock model’s relatively small unit. The turbo uses the same housing as the stock Supra Turbo unit—the Toyota CT26—but the small “E” stamped into the housing reveals that it has a larger compressor crammed into the same packaging. 

All of these changes make popping the hood a game of “I Spy” to reveal the car’s true potential. The stock Turbo Supra was rated at 230 horsepower; the changes of the Turbo A put it at a rated 265 hp, and with a few easy breathing modifications (high flow catalytic converter, larger diameter exhaust, freer-flowing intake, and a bit more boost pressure—all performed on this car) it’s easy to put torque and horsepower into the three hundreds. Nowadays, 300-plus lb-ft is a good time; in 1988 it was downright nutty.

What did all these Zelda-temple-esque hidden secrets and concealed powers, tucked into the corners of the bay, add up to on the track? Unfortunately, not much. The Sierra RS Cosworth dominated the late 80s touring car circuit and then handed the podium baton off directly to the Group A R32 Nissan GT-R in 1989, which birthed the (automotive) legend of Godzilla. The Supra faced the stiffest competition ever seen in Group A—the R32 was so dominant at its peak that it essentially ended Group A as a class, as entire top-tens become solely R32s, with other manufacturers barely bothering to enter.

The Supra was even further weighted down by Group A displacement regulations due to the relatively large 3.0L engine being classed punitively, and as a result, it required more ballast than the 2.0L Cosworth or the 2.6L R32 to be competition legal. It barely made an impact on the track, and in the dirt of the World Rally Championship, the turbocharged Toyota Team Europe factory-backed car never cracked a podium. 

And that makes the Turbo A even more of an automotive oddity. Homologation cars usually adore playing up their provenance as track-tested machines, becoming prized for both their racing accomplishments and low production numbers. The Turbo A makes no attempt to tell you how rare it is, and it truthfully accomplished very little on the track. It shyly hides all of its special performance parts in a cloak of black paint, intentionally avoiding attention. And really, it’s a bit of a disappointment to have a car so painfully rare and important in Toyota’s history and have so few people be aware of its existence. Or at least, it was painful for me, until I started to actually drive it.

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