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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

Supra Smooth at Warp Speed

July 23, 1993|PAUL DEAN

Toyota's new Supra Turbo is a touring car with mortifying performance and the ability to take away everything. Your breath. Life's priorities. Maybe your state's permission to operate a motor vehicle.

Would that sales perform as strongly.

But if any car is marked for dubious times, it is the belated 1993 Supra, which this month enters a crowded market for high-performance Japanese coupes that are stumbling like never before.

Nissan started our high-technology habit with the 1990 300ZX and its optional twin turbochargers, four-wheel steering and penchant for crushing most things that tried sneaking alongside.

Then came Mitsubishi's 3000GT VR-4. Also double-blown with four-wheel steering. Heavy, flat, wickedly and comfortably fast. And last year, after several seasons of checking to the raiser, Mazda hoisted the stakes with the new RX-7 that is less sports car, more rotary-engined race car in street aluminum.

These are fine, 150 m.p.h. vehicles with an eerie knack of making such speed feel like 80 m.p.h. All will blast from rest to 60 m.p.h. in about 5 seconds. They are silken in traffic, forgive gross mishandling and are as solid as the Pyramids.

But sales are in quicksand.

There's the recession, of course. Also, production typically remains ahead of demand when one is building $35,000 cars that only carry two people. A greening conscience is growing, opposed to impractical cars and impossible speeds.

Other, more subtle forces are working against these Asian cars. They have the power but not the bare-knuckle spirit of say, Ferrari or Corvette. They do everything impossibly well, which as a human trait can be downright irritating.

And Detroit's vastly improved products have started to turn the imported tide.

Hence an essential truth: Although the Supra Turbo brings something to the table, success these days usually goes to those who bring a new table.

*

The Supra's looks--muscular from most angles, certainly distinctive from head-on and dead astern thanks to radical light clusters--are a pastiche. It borrows from Honda's Prelude in the side windows and the noticeable hunch of the silhouette carries some incestuous touches of Paseo, Celica and the MR-2.

But those lights are original, innovative and quite grand. Up front, on each corner, are bull's-eyes three abreast--one for high beam, one for low, the third a fog buster.

Out back, on each corner, four softballs abreast and in snooker ball colors--two reds for brake and night running, one white for a backup light, one amber for a turn signal.

Some Supras may be seen with an optional rear wing that is high, wide, arching, and as peculiar as a bald guy combing his hair sideways. Look the other way should one pass. Or wear garlic.

Overall, it is not an ugly look. But attractive only in patches.

The interior of our leather-lined test car was likeable although barely three-star accommodations for a vehicle costing more than a small BMW or mini-Mercedes.

It has a distinct cockpit feel with the center console canted toward the driver and all dials and controls set on the operating side. Three large analog gauges tell speed, engine revolutions, cylinder head heat and fuel--but whatever might be stirring and hissing inside the oil pan remains an unmonitored mystery.

Not that the lack of an oil pressure gauge is much of a problem. Those who have experienced blockages or pump failure say the initial symptom is not a descending needle but a car's noticeable reluctance to accelerate. With appropriate screeching noises.

The instrument hood definitely is overambitious, reaching out and over the gauges until they are interred. Remember last winter and peering from beneath the parka with the XXL hood?

Driver and passenger have air bags. Seats are beautifully bolstered and contoured without reducing the comfort factor. There's a long, broad, full-sole dead pedal for long-distance leg resting.

And the gear shift--short, chubby, immediately to right hand and with a short throw that's more of a flip--is a new, very high standard for manual operation.

*

Occupants will find their compartment roomy, bearing in mind the tight, performance purpose of the car. But underneath the hatchback is a trunk that is no more than a deep tray. Inexcusable.

Rear seating? Padded ringers of the real thing added to stifle curmudgeons who always note the social selfishness--to say nothing of the emotional and physical strain on growing kids--of paying such big bucks for a two-seater.

This fourth-generation Supra comes in two body styles--hatchback and a "Sport Roof" featuring a detachable aluminum panel for the Targa look.

Two engines are available--a normally aspirated, twin-cam, 3.0-liter, 24-valve inline six delivering 220 horsepower. That's 20 more horsepower than last year.

Top of the performance line is the same engine mated to twin-sequential turbochargers. That improves the oomph to a class-leading 320 horsepower without dropping the car into the expensive gas-guzzler tax bracket.

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