Nissan Z vs. Toyota Supra: which modern Japanese sports car is best?

If you’ll all indulge me for just a moment, I’d like to take us on a trip down memory lane, back to everyone’s (i.e., people who lust after Japanese sports cars) favorite decade: the 1990’s. The 90’s was the best decade to be a Japanese car enthusiast, as all of the major Japanese brands were producing a cool, fun 2-door sports car. Nissan had the Skyline, 300ZX and 240SX, Mazda had the RX-7 and Miata, Mitsubishi had the 3000GT and the Eclipse, and Acura had the Ferrari-fighting NSX. Toyota, of course, played along too, with their beloved MKIV Supra as well as the MR2. 

Things were great for Japanese sports cars in the 90’s, but then Y2K rolled around and many of these cars died off. Some cool stuff did stick around through the 2000s, like the MR2, and other new cars were introduced, like the S2000, RX-8, and 350Z. These too stuck around for a while, until we entered the Japanese sports car dark ages that started circa 2010. Between 2010 and 2020, if you wanted a new Japanese sports car, your choices were slim: there was the 370Z, the Toyota 86 (aka Subaru BR-Z and Scion FR-S), and the Miata.

The GT-R and NSX were around in this era, but they had graduated beyond sports car status; they were supercars. This left Japanese sports car fans all but out of luck, until a hero rose from the ashes to bring us out of the dark ages: enter the 2020 Supra. The Supra came out with sleek looks, rear-wheel-drive, and most importantly, an incredibly stout (albeit BMW-sourced) turbo straight 6, remarkably reminiscent of the fabled 2JZ engine of yesteryear. And of course, every hero has something to fight against, and in the case of the MKV Supra, that something is the all-new, recently released Nissan Z.

The new Z, while based on the outgoing 370Z, brings turbo power back to the Z car, along with lovable retro styling, handsome proportions, and of course, its secret weapon, a true row-your-own 6-speed manual transmission. With a fierce rivalry bound to take shape between these two as soon as the new Z goes on sale in spring 2022, I think it’s only appropriate that we pit these two head-to-head, and try to decide which Japanese sports car will reign supreme throughout the next decade.

In this article, let’s take an early look at Supra vs. Z; we’ll go over basic specs, tuning potential as well as other considerations to determine which car will come out on top. Keep in mind that I’ve not yet driven either car, so we’ll just be going off of what we know on paper. 

Supra vs. Z: Engines 

One of the most important components of any good sports car is its engine. The famous MKIV Supra had the legendary 2JZ, and Nissan competed mightily with the RB engine from the Skyline (both turbocharged straight-6s). Fast forward 20 years later, and the Supra is still rocking a boosted 3.0L straight six, just like it was back in the day (although the new engine has just one turbo compared to the old one’s two).

Nissan, however, has gone to a V-style engine in the form of a 3.0L twin-turbocharged V6. The Supra, after the 2021 refresh, makes 382 horsepower and 368lb-ft of torque. The Z will debut with 400hp and 350lb-ft of torque. Both cars will send all power to the rear wheels. So, the Z does make more power on paper, but the Supra edges it out in torque. And because the Z only has an 18 horsepower advantage over the Supra, we’ll call it a draw on out-of-the-box engine power. 

Supra vs. Z: Tuning Potential

Even though the factory engine power comparison came out to a draw, we all know that isn’t what really matters. What really matters is the tuning potential: i.e., how much power are the engines capable of making with aftermarket tunes and hardware. On this topic we actually know quite a bit, because versions of the Supra’s B58 I-6 have been used in BMWs since 2015, and the same is true for the Nissan Z’s VR30DDTT, of which versions have been used in the Infiniti Q50 since 2016. 

The Supra version of the B58 features a forged crankshaft from factory, a closed-deck engine block design, and plenty strong rods and pistons. If you’re not a nerd like me and don’t know what that means, know this: you can, in classic Supra fashion, bolt a big ole’ turbo to the B58 and not worry much about whether or not it can handle it. It can. As long as it is tuned correctly with the right supporting mods, the Supra’s drivetrain (which includes the transmission) can handle 600-650whp safely. Of course there are failure risks running a car that far above the factory specs, but all things considered, the Supra works well with aftermarket parts. 

As for the VR30DDTT in the Z, the tuning potential is still strong, but not quite on the level of the Supra, at least based on what we know about the application of this engine in the Z. People have extracted quite respectable horsepower figures out of the VR30, approaching or north of 500whp, but doing so is not as easy, safe, or reliable as it is on the B58. So, while the VR30 can make big horsepower, it can’t make as much, or do so as easily and reliably as the B58 can. For this reason, the Supra gets the edge in tuning potential. 

Supra vs. Z: Handling, Suspension, Size and Brakes

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve not yet driven either of the vehicles in question, so I can’t speak much to how they handle, drive and brake. What I can do, however, is tell you what suspension and braking systems they use, and how other people think they handle and drive. Or, at least I can tell you how other people think the Supra handles, because reviews are not yet out on the Z. 

Let’s start with the Supra: it’s 172.5 inches long, with a 97.2 inch wheelbase. It makes use of a double-joint MacPherson strut suspension out front, with a multilink setup in the rear. Adjustable dampers will be found at all four corners so long as you get the 3.0 (which is the only acceptable engine to have in the Supra). Rounding out the Supra’s road-holding equipment are 255 wide tires in the front, and 275 wide tires in the rear, as well 13.7” front rotors, and 13-13.6” rear rotors, depending on what package your car is equipped with. 

As for the Nissan, less is known regarding exactly what equipment you get, but we know the basics. The Z is ever so slightly longer than the supra at 172.6”, and the wheelbase is a bit longer too, at 100.4”. The front suspension uses a double A-arm configuration, and the rear is a multi-link setup. Monotube dampers are found all around. Assuming you spec the Nissan Z with all the performance options possible, you’ll get 14.0” inch rotors in front, and 13.8” in the back, along with Surpa-matching tire widths: 255 front and 275 rear. 

Now, all of that technical jargon is nice to know for some, but how does it equate to driving feel? Well, for the Z, we don’t know, because no one’s driven it yet. However, the Supra is said to handle well, with a compliant-enough ride, direct steering, and strong cornering capability. Beyond that, the two cars are extremely similar. Their dimensions are close enough to be identical; their brakes sizes nearly match, and their tire sizes do match. So, while neither car gets the edge here, know that they’re quite similar, at least in terms of hardware.

Supra vs. Z: Transmissions

You might, at this juncture, be wondering why I’ve only made brief mention of the transmissions available in either vehicle up to this point. That would be because it is the most important talking point, so of course I saved it for last! The Supra is, very sadly, available only with a ZF 8-speed automatic. While this is downright depressing, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this is quite a fantastic automatic transmission. I’ve driven the ZF-8 gearbox paired to the B58 (basically the Supra drivetrain) in various BMW applications, and it’s quite good. The shifts are quick and snappy at wide open-throttle, and the paddles are responsive. Yet the pairing feels docile, and shifts become unnoticeable when driving slowly.

So, it’s a great automatic, but it’s still an automatic. I am a firm believer that cars, no matter how great, can only be so fun with just two pedals. And, apparently, Nissan agrees, because they have, much to the delight of car enthusiasts everywhere, decided to offer the new Z with a 6-speed manual as standard. It’s also available with a 9-speed auto (blah blah blah no one cares). 6-SPEED MANUAL AS STANDARD!

In a time when new manual transmissions are extremely rare, this is a massive selling point for the new Z. Additionally, it effectively corners a relatively large portion of potential buyers of these two cars. I imagine that these two cars will be heavily cross-shopped, and for buyers like me that just about require a manual in their sports cars, you’re only choice is the Z. Now, there are rumors that a manual Supra is coming, but at least for now, and probably when the Z goes on sale in spring 2022, the Nissan will be the only one of the two with a manual transmission. 

Final Thoughts

Now that we’ve thoroughly gone over all of the details of each car, we can finally decide which is best. Or… can we? Actually no, we can’t. For one, no one has driven the Z yet, and for all we know, it could handle like a dump truck. That alone makes it impossible to pick a winner, but beyond that, much of this will boil down to personal preference. Some people don’t care about tuning potential, or manual transmissions. And while both cars look very handsome in my opinion, one or the other might stick out to you. What I’m saying is, only you can decide which car is best for you. However, having said that, one thing is for absolute certain: Japanese sports cars are back, and the rivalry between these two cars is shaping up to be nothing short of legendary.  

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