From the November 2020 issue of Car and Driver.
Think of an affordable rear-drive performance car. Got it? Okay. If the Mazda Miata didn’t at least flash in your mind, you probably haven’t spent enough time with us here. Feel free to go ahead and dial up some back issues if you’d like. Or we can catch you up real fast.
Cheap rear-drivers are what get us out of bed in the morning. They pack all the fun of pricier, more powerful cars because they are cut from the same cloth that emphasizes crisp handling and a great driving experience. The reward for taking the rear-drive road is (usually) less filtered steering feel and improved cornering balance.
Unfortunately, rear-drive as the status quo gave way to front-wheel drive decades ago, and all-wheel drive has been steadily chipping away at the holdouts. There just aren’t many cheap rear-drive performance cars left. There’s the aforementioned king from Hiroshima; there are the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 twins; and, well, that’s about it. For some time now, automakers have left a yawning gap between those mid-to-high-14-second quarter-mile cars and vehicles like the pony-car-turned-sports-car Chevrolet Camaro SS. But Ford and Toyota are out to change that. The newest variants of the Ford Mustang and Toyota Supra aim to fill that space with boosted four-bangers and handling hand-me-downs from their more powerful siblings.
These middle-ground performance cars aren’t that cheap, though. A Mustang with the 2.3L High Performance package, like the Race Red one seen here, starts at $32,860. The hi-po pack inflates the output of the base Stang’s turbocharged 2.3-liter inline-four by 20 horses, to 330, and adds $4995 to the price. Once you spec the $1995 EcoBoost Handling package (19-inch Pirelli P Zero Corsa PZC4 tires, magnetorheological dampers, and a shorter 3.55:1 limited-slip diff), the four-cylinder Mustang graduates from muscle-car wannabe to legitimate performer. Spec yours like our test car—with the Premium package, navigation system, and blind-spot monitoring—and you’re looking at a car with a $42,070 price tag.
Powered by a 255-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, Toyota’s new entry-level Supra starts about 11 grand higher than the Mustang, but you need no options to make this a back-roads star. Equipped with navigation, an upgraded stereo, special yellow paint, and a cargo mat, the Supra 2.0 tested here flirts with $48,000.
There is another difference between these two cars, one that’s even more notable than their almost $6000 spread. Like the six-cylinder version, this Supra is available only with an eight-speed automatic. Ford offers buyers a choice of a six-speed manual or a 10-speed auto. We tested the manual Mustang because that’s the one we’d buy.
Before the bow-tie-tattoo community moans over the lack of a Camaro 1LE in this test, know that we asked for one—initially for the turbo four-banger and then, after realizing the naturally aspirated V-6 would be a better fit, for one of those. The answer was a polite “no” both times. Maybe Chevy thinks its Camaro SS 1LE is the best fit.
Though cheap performance may no longer be so cheap, it is still fun. But if you’re going to spend this much on a four-cylinder sports car, you’d better know which is best.
Ford Mustang 2.3L High Performance
Highs: Manual trans, useful chassis upgrades, timeless look.
Lows: Creaky interior, engine lacks character, it costs how much?
Verdict: Ford’s hi-po version of its entry-level pony is missing a few years of development.
Ford bet big on turbocharged engines back in 2009. Its line of EcoBoost engines is marketed with the promise of power when you need it and frugality when you want it. But a performance Mustang with a boosted four isn’t a new idea. The Mustang SVO launched in 1983 to mostly positive words from this magazine, but the turbo four Stang was mothballed after ’86 for more than two decades. When the 2.3-liter launched for 2015, we were far less into the idea of a Mustang with fewer than eight cylinders.
The EcoBoost Handling pack goes a long way in changing our minds. Think of this car as the EcoBoost version of the Mustang GT Performance Package Level 2 [see “Stretch Goals”]. The Pirellis deliver 1.02 g’s of stick in corners and help this car change direction like a rabbit escaping a hound. But even running the same size 265/40ZR-19 tires front and rear doesn’t abate the front-end push. We prefer the Supra’s neutral handling, which borders on oversteer, to the Stang’s safe understeer setup. Plus, the Ford’s steering transmits continuous vibratory static to the driver.
The Mustang can’t hang with the Supra in straight-line drags, either. The Ford packs 75 more horses than the Toyota yet requires half a second more to cover a quarter-mile. By 130 mph, the Stang is 1.7 seconds behind the Supra. And before you go blaming the Mustang’s extra 460 pounds of, um, curb appeal, check out the pounds-per-horsepower ratio. It falls in the Mustang’s favor by a wide margin. But BMW, which supplies the Supra’s engine, is known for conservative engine ratings, and the Mustang suffers a small time penalty for manual shifting. That’s a penalty we’re willing to take, though, for the ability to row our own gears.
The 2.3-liter just never feels very lively in Mustangs. It runs out of steam well before its 6500-rpm redline, and while you can overrun it to 6800 for brief periods, doing so is neither satisfying nor smart. It’s quicker to short-shift around 6000 rpm.
But the Mustang is still a Mustang. It’s an iconic design that gets people excited. Driver comfort and interior space are also excellent. A creaky dash leads us to think there is some chassis flex, but the car otherwise feels solidly screwed together. Plus, a back seat of any size is a nice thing to have. You can make a Mustang work as your only car; that’s harder to do with the two-seat Supra. We just can’t help but wonder how good the four-cylinder Mustang would be if Ford had kept the SVO idea alive for all these years.
Toyota Supra 2.0
Highs: Lovely engine, eager chassis, youthful looks.
Lows: Trans tuning could use a hackathon, only two seats, even more expensive than the Ford.
Verdict: The four-cylinder BMW coupe we’ve dreamed of since the ’90s.
Say what you will about the Toyota’s styling, but people—especially young ones—notice the Supra. As one 21-year-old nanny to a perfect 17-month-old baby girl put it: “That car is badass!” She had no clue that this four-cylinder car is the baby of the Supra family. The best way for you to distinguish between the two is to look at the wheels: The 2.0 gets 18-inchers; the 3.0 rides on 19s.
As soon as you toe the Supra’s throttle, you realize what that extra $6K gets you. Where the Mustang’s 2.3 falls flat, the BMW-sourced inline-four keeps pulling to redline. It has the sounds of a race-bred Cosworth but not the thirst. And at the last fill-up, we marveled at how many fewer gallons—whole gallons!—the Supra sipped. Sure, the Ford mill is 13 percent larger and 75 horses stronger, but an observed-fuel-economy delta of 8 mpg is practically unheard of in C/D comparo testing. It’s tough to call Ford’s engine “eco” anything when the Supra averages 27 mpg to its 19.
The only problem in the Supra’s powertrain is its transmission logic. It’s rare that we sample a ZF eight-speed automatic that isn’t intuitive. Normally, in Sport mode, a car will automatically downshift to a lower gear under braking. The assumption is that you’re going to get back on the gas because, you know, that’s what you do when you’re driving briskly. But that doesn’t happen here. We resorted to pulling the paddles, which works fine, but if we’re stuck with an automatic, we want the shifting to be automatic. All the Supra’s noncosmetic faults could be solved with an optional manual, which, if rumors are true, Toyota is seriously considering. How can we get K-pop fanatics to flood Toyota with that message?
The Supra’s breezy 3181-pound curb weight helps give it a decided handling advantage. The BMW-spec Michelins don’t have to work as hard as the Ford’s Pirellis, and they put up better numbers because of that. The Supra made a clean sweep of the chassis tests. Credit goes to the chassis tuners. Sure, they may have been working with a 9.9-inch-shorter wheelbase than Ford’s team was, but the Toyota’s passive dampers remind us that it is possible to dial in a good ride-handling balance without resorting to electronic crutches. Best of all, this Supra drives small. The cabin feels tailored, not off the rack, and it communicates to the driver like a polished orator, making it worth its premium. Which is exactly why it’s the best car at filling in the mid-price sports-car gap.
Ford Mustang GT PPL2: $45,575
Toyota Supra 3.0: $51,985
The four-cylinder Mustang and Supra we tested come very close to the cost of much more capable models wearing the same nameplates. The Ford Mustang GT Performance Package Level 2 packs a 460-hp V-8 and enough Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber to upset even the most grounded equilibrium—1.13 g’s on the skidpad—all for just $3505 more than our 2.3-liter hi-po test car. The Supra 3.0, with a 382-hp turbo inline-six and adaptive dampers, hits 60 mph in 3.8 seconds and passes a quarter-mile in 12.1 seconds for $4010 more than the yellow 2.0 we had for this comparison. Serious performance buyers will clip coupons and pinch pennies to make the engine upgrade happen. —KC
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED