1988 Toyota Supra Turbo A Review: Driving the Ultimate MKIII Supra We Never Got
Sometimes, hiding your real power is true strength.
The eighties were not a time for nuance in any regard, and the cars were of course no exception. Turbochargers that whined louder than jet engines, side-exit exhausts dumped fire at bystanders, and color combinations that bordered on the offensive were virtually an industry standard. At the top of this pecking order were the legendary homologation specials of the era; purpose-built to collect trophies and glory for their manufacturers, road manners be damned. So a racing homologation Supra—already one of the most storied nameplates in automotive history—has to be beyond absurd, right?
But Toyota dodged all the era's trends—even the ostentatious styling it would later embrace—with its 500-car run of the Turbo A Supra, a true homologation run meant for FIA Group A racing. There are no dashboard plaques crying out about its rarity. Instead of searing teal or vibrant red, it only came in stealthy black, with wheels to match. But this discreet nature doesn't do the car a disservice; rather, getting to pilot it feels like you're being let in on a secret that only a select few who drive it—and, of course, those who see its taillights pulling away on the Wangan—will ever understand.
1988 Toyota Supra Turbo A: By the Numbers
- Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged twin-cam inline-six | 5-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 265 @ 5,600 RPM
- Torque: 264 lb-ft @ 4,400 RPM
- 0-60: Less than 6 seconds (as tested)
- Top speed: Greater than 145 mph
- Quick take: The Turbo A Supra eschews attention but gets results for the chosen few who don't overlook it.
Although the fourth generation of the Supra line generally gets the most attention, its third generation was a true watershed moment for Toyota. Up until 1985, the Supra name was simply the highest trim level available for the Toyota Celica, itself a reasonably upscale sports coupe. Toyota would plop a larger, more aggressive inline-six into the traditionally inline-four Celica chassis, add luxurious features, and give it more aggressive styling. For the Supra’s first two generations, it was, essentially, a very fancy option package and not a globally recognized name. (Back home in Japan, the Celica Supra was simply referred to as the Celica XX.)
Then, with the launch of the third generation in 1986, the Supra name was split off into its own devoted model. The Celica became a front-wheel-drive, economy-minded sports coupe, and the Supra became a completely distinct rear-wheel-drive luxury grand tourer, and the pinnacle of Toyota’s offerings. The third-generation Supra was sold as an aspirational performance car in an era defined by aspirational performance cars years before Toyota developed Lexus. Selling something this plush, this upscale, and this heavy-hitting was unprecedented for Toyota in the era, and the new Supra was extremely ambitious as a result.
In 1987, a turbo option was added to the Supra and the heavy-hitting doubled down. Now, the power the straight-six offered with the help of forced induction was in the neighborhood of Corvettes, Cosworths, and Fairladies, and the Supra was in the same conversations as all of them. They were obvious competitors on the sales floor, and although the luxurious focus of the MK3 meant that weight was on the high side for a competition car, Toyota still decided to race with them on the world stage.
The Homologation Supra
And this villainously sinister car is the direct result of that competitive drive. It is a 1988 Supra Turbo A, and it is one of 500 cars built to satisfy the FIA’s Group A homologation requirements. Later generations did not need a homologation version, racing solely in the much freer JGTC GT 500 and GT4 classes; earlier Supras were raced in the much milder FIA Group 3, where the normal production car was sufficient for racing. As a result, this is the only true purpose-built homologation car to exist in the Supra lineage.
And unlike the rest of the Supra name, the Turbo A was short-lived, with the FIA mandated 500 examples built from September to October of 1988, and sold only in Japan. Eleven race variants were built by TRD for the factory-backed entries to the Australian Touring Car Championship and JGTC, with the rest of the run being sold directly to consumers for the street or for privateer racing.
Furthermore, unlike the rest of the homologation specials I’ve driven in the past, the Turbo A takes a keen eye to spot in the wild. Visually, it is nearly indistinguishable from the facelifted version of the regular Supra Turbo. It was sold solely in black on black with a gray interior. Only the body-matched black “saw blade” wheels, subtle front intercooler vent, and low-key rocker graphics hint at its true provenance. Peer inside, and a special shift knob and Momo wheel were included from the factory (both of which were replaced on this specific car for reasons I cannot fathom), but other than that it looks like any other right-hand-drive Supra.
And pop the hood of the Turbo A, and there isn’t anything that seems to pack much more punch than the base model Supra Turbo. The motor is still the standard 3.0-liter 7MGTE straight-six with a single turbocharger. To the novice, everything appears more or less stock.
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.
Driving the Supra Turbo A
I tested the Turbo A in the endless sweeping highways of the Houston metro area. Houston is not a city for finding the razor edge of car control and maximum G’s on winding technical canyon roads, but it does possess a great replica of the high-speed Wangan tollways of Japan, and that’s what the Turbo A is truly meant for. Despite the lack of success the Turbo A found in officially-sanctioned FIA events, on the interstates of Houston, it is a purebred devourer of pavement that can run with the best of them.
The pleasant touring sensibilities of the stock MK3 Turbo remain intact despite the Turbo A's more serious demeanor, with the longer rear differential of the homologation car promising top speeds in excess of 150 mph in luxury-car comfort. The breathing assistance the car was given with its larger throttle body and more precise fueling makes it feel surgically quick in a way the less serious base model Turbo never could from the factory. Stiffer suspension and thicker sway bars make short work of interchanges, and the long, flood-damage-pockmarked sweepers of the I-610 loop are as stable and controlled as driving down a slot car track.
And the sheepishly hidden nature of the Turbo A makes much more sense once the sun dims, the streetlights come on, and taillights become the only way to identify would-be opponents on the Wangan (or I-10). Corvettes, Foxbody Mustangs, and Camaros on Katy Freeway become stand-ins for the R32s and RX-7s of the Bayshore Route, and a fairly easy night of picking off a heavy, plush tourer is suddenly flipped on its head when the larger turbo spools and the gearing doesn’t relent as triple digits beckon.
Toyota wasn’t building a homologation car for their buyers. It constructed a factory sleeper to bestow upon a chosen few, a Midnight Club special delivered from the factory to lure unsuspecting opponents into a sense of comfort only to devour them as the white lines become a blur.
And this unusual philosophy is intriguing, especially for such a pedigreed car. In the time I was driving the Turbo A, hardly anyone knew what it truly was beyond a murdered-out Supra. Having a secret of this magnitude so discreetly kept is the closest feeling I could have to being a superhero, despite the gothic, nearly evil presentation of the all-black-everything trim. The Supra Turbo A might not be the world’s most accomplished race car, and at car meets, it won’t attract as much attention as a bright orange MK4. But when night falls and your abilities are all that truly matter, it comes through in spades.
Got a tip, or another older car you want to see us review? Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.