A recent voicemail I received from a neighbor: “Hi, it’s Jason, and I noticed that you have a Supra. Miller would love a ride in it if possible. Thanks, bye.” Jason has a company that builds off-road vehicles, and Miller is his teenage son.
But this wasn’t going to be a “give a kid a ride in a sports car” nice guy thing. Uh uh. It would be a transaction. Kid gets ride, I get kid’s thoughts. Despite orbiting the planet a measly 14 times, Miller is one of those automotive “how does he know that?” teens. Maybe he’ll temper the skepticism my 49 additional orbits have got me carrying into comparing the 2021 Toyota GR Supra 2.0 to a 2020 Ford Mustang EcoBoost.
Me? Names like Mustang and Supra subconsciously sort themselves into the same cultural silos as Budweiser and Sapporo or Levi’s and Uniqlo—rival products that give one another wary side glances and would, if they could, drive to opposite ends of this sentence to be as far apart as possible. Parked next to each other, they’d lean in opposite directions on their tires.
Sure, there are YouTube videos of Supras drag racing and fuzzy old 8mm films of Parnelli Jones’ Boss 302 Mustang romping around corners in Trans Am road-racing, but both are scenes of the actors playing against their type. In my opinion, there are two kinds of driving enthusiasts. First are the ones whose happy place is when they’re pinned to their seat back by straight-line g’s, and second are those whose endorphins are uncorked during cornering g’s. It’s one or the other. The Mustang pressed button A, the Supra presses button B.
This Mustang And Supra Are Both Little Brothers
Admittedly, the Venn diagrams of this particular Mustang and Supra—an EcoBoost and a 2.0—bump into each other a little. As Miller walked up to the Supra, he knew it wasn’t the 3.0-liter turbo with 335 hp. “That’s the new one with the 2.0-liter turbo-four from the BMW sDrive30.” He’s right. The 2021 GR Supra 2.0’s engine outputs 255 hp at 5,000 rpm and 295 lb-ft at 1,550, all twisted through an eight-speed automatic. Unlike the 3.0-liter car, its suspension is simpler and non-adjustable, and it doesn’t come with the limited-slip diff, either. Although both Supra variants share the same tire widths—255 front, 275 rears—the 2.0’s are mounted on 18- rather than 19-inch wheels. Of course, the point of all this lesser and smaller stuff is a shrunken price, down to $44,000 to start ($47,500 as tested), a stout $7,000 less than the base 3.0-liter car. Toyota’s supercomputers have definitely identified a marketable slot between this and the Supra’s little brother, the 86.
Likewise, this Mustang isn’t the galloping, burbling eight-pot horse we reflexively picture, either. The EcoBoost is more of a cantering animal, with a 2.3-liter turbocharged four and six-speed manual transmission. It starts at a bargain $32,900, but by the time that nearly $11K in options are tacked on, our test car crests at a $43,665 endpoint. The bulk of it, nearly $5,000, is a 2.3 High Performance package and the EcoBoost Handling Package. It’s still a deal, though.
Size Doesn’t Matter
But despite it being cheaper, if you were to overlay each car’s 3-D CAD files, the Mustang’s would be big enough to hide the Supra completely inside it, being 16.0 inches longer, 2.4 inches wider, and 3.2 inches taller. The Mustang is also 450 pounds heavier, plus it has rear seats, though only kidnappers would ever be willing sit back there. Were Amazon to deliver a Mustang to your door, the box would be 74 cubic feet bigger than the Supra’s box, and your uncle the accountant would calculate that it coincidentally costs $74 per cubic foot, or 62 percent cheaper than the Supra’s $118. Nevertheless, the Ford is more power-dense, with one hp per every 1.35 cubic feet compared to the Toyota’s 1.46. And despite the EcoBoost’s similar power-to-weight ratio, our road test editor and denizen of the dragstrip, Chris Walton, deems the Supra to be the quicker car, owing, I figure, to its wider rear tires and the greater percentage of weight on said rear tires.
Taken out of their boxes, their shapes are even more dissimilar. The Supra (which was actually designed at Toyota’s CALTY studio in California) is like an expensive running shoe, form-fitting and complex-looking. Its nose has a Formula 1-inspired snout, and from there back its form undulates in a series of muscular folds that remind me of those artsy, zoomed-close black-and-white photos of nude, fit models you see in museums where you can’t quite tell what you’re looking at, but whatever it is, it’s interesting.
If the Toyota tips its hat (or caplike roof) to its iconic, long-nose, short-stern 1994 fourth-gen predecessor, the EcoBoost Mustang is as locked within its cage of expectations as Julian Assange is in his London prison. This isn’t really “design,” is it? It’s pleasant parody, like the ninth Fast and Furious movie where the slow-motion airborne cars were already checkboxes by version 3. As if the designers in the Mustang studio are issued connect-the-dots sketchpads before for every new generation—angry headlights, dot, rear wheel power bulges, dot, triple-hashmark taillights, dot—and then allowed to slightly play around with the lines between them. That said, it’s a better remake than most of them, particularly given ever-mounting safety obstacles, like tall, pedestrian-absorbing hoods for instance. Just don’t google any images of the sublime original, and you’ll be happy.
The Mustang Has A Slower Sweet Spot
After a few miles lurching along through L.A. ‘s local mountains at eight-tenths, I decided the Mustang’s sweet spot is a couple clicks lower. Say, around six-tenths. Set it to its street-sane Sport+ mode, and the lighter-nosed EcoBoost Mustang is a nimbler dance partner than the V-8 ‘Stangs (certainly pleasuring my B-Type driving preference). But the steering ratio is slow enough and its yaw response languid enough that it’s easy to get out of phase with corrections and lose track of where the car is going. Even with that, the bow hunts around as the whole car bounds on bumpier surfaces even though you’re holding a constant steering angle. And although its default effort setting seemed unnecessarily high, I quickly reverted to it from Comfort, as unintentional steering motions become too easy to make as the car gyrates. Between the corners, the shifter never misses, but its clunk-ca-clunk linkage takes time.
Randy Pobst’s Pony Car Cameo
Serendipitously, a week earlier, Randy Pobst happened to be lapping the same Mustang around Willow Springs for a different project.
“On the first lap, I immediately had a sideways moment in Turn 9, but I think the tires just weren’t up to operating temperature,” he said. “I haven’t known the Pirelli Corsas to be very sensitive to that. Before the car got hot and cut power [it was blistering that day], I was liking the four-cylinder engine’s low-end torque—it runs 22 pounds of boost, which is a lot—and though it’s still a midrange and bottom-end engine, it pulls better at high revs than the regular engine. [Credit the High Performance package.] You go through those lower gears in a hurry with the short, 3:55:1 final drive ratio, and the engine’s happy being shifted low in the revs, too—about 5,000-5,500 rpm. [In fact, the tach turns red at 5,000.] Both upgrade packages increase the size of the rear anti-roll bar, which reduces understeer, and I really liked the brakes. It’s a really firm brake pedal.”
The crack racing driver and the car journalist who track-tests cars (for almost 40 years, really?) aren’t completely agreeing here. And remember this: A bumpy, narrow public road at moderate speeds can tell you a whole different story than a smooth, wide, high-speed racetrack.
The Supra Takes The Road Less Taken
Instead of retracing the Mustang’s mountain route, I headed the Supra south to Ortega Highway, a wiggly link between San Juan Capistrano and inland Lake Elsinore.
A mistake. On the way up past Santiago Peak, I cleared the garbage trucks and construction equipment long enough to sample how alien this car’s handling is from that of the Mustang. With far less body roll, lighter weight, better-balanced weight distribution, and staggered tire sizes, it’s a slot car versus the Ford’s log-ride vagueness. Shifts are finger taps. The car’s BMW power is bright instead of fast, and the brakes surgically snub the speed when the apexes approach. Still, I was also wary of my corner entry speed, as I’d already felt the tail grossly oversteer during an impromptu figure-eight lap where my hands weren’t smooth. And the whole time, the car’s rear is bucking over bumps, sometimes violently. Then, just tootling along behind a guy in an old Civic, I got pulled over.
“Do you know why you’ve been pulled over?” I literally shrugged my shoulders. I think the officer was expecting a canyon racer kid and thumping rap instead of a Mr. Rogers-type looking startled, listening to jazz. “Why, how are you today, officer?” No criminal here, he waved me on my way. With an eye on the speedometer on the way down the mountain, I passed a young guy revving a bright red Alfa Romeo 4C on a pull-out waiting for a long gap in traffic. Have a nice day, pal.
With Miller belted into the Supra 2.0, I slowed to a stop, held the brake, stepped the throttle into the carpet, checked that the coast was clear, and popped my left foot off the brake pedal. The Supra made a tiny chirp and accelerated, but no more so than guys around here inadvertently do in Teslas. I looked at Miller and gestured, “That’s it.” He slowly rocked his head side to side, underwhelmed.
“So how do you picture the Mustang and Supra?” I asked him, expecting a new-era perspective. “The Mustang is a pony car” he replied. “When I think of the Supra, I think of those cool JDM cars. I wouldn’t compare them, but, yeah, I might consider both.” I’m actually surprised. Our half-century age gap doesn’t leave much common ground when it comes to culture and taste. Music, movies, certainly language—I have to resist saying “bitchin’” or “boss” when he and my son exchange “that’s sick.” But here we are seeing the Mustang and Supra exactly the same way. And then the car’s rear discovers a bump and jolts us again.
Both of these are cars make a tempting play for your affection. I relish the Supra’s steering sharpness. The Mustang’s happy charm gets you grinning by the end of the street. But unless you live on a giant billiard ball, the Toyota’s rear suspension is a flaw, too uncomfortable to live with, while the Mustang EcoBoost is the rare pony car that manages to wear its tweed sports car cap comfortably enough to get the nod.