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Letter From Europe - A Look At Toyota Supra, Lexus LC 500 (Top Down Blindness), Toyota 4 Runner, Volvo V90, Mazda CX-5


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Letter from Europe
by Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

When the latest test car arrived to the Californian HQ of The Auto Channel I had no idea what it was. It looked good, it was bright red and all the neighbors thought it was amazing. I am referring to the 2021 Toyota Supra.

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Hand on heart I’ve never ever seen one. On closer inspection it turned out to be great. Let me be the bad boy I’ve always wanted to be. If I were to buy one for about 50 thousand dollars I would immediately remove all references to Toyota and put two Ferrari badges/fender shields on the front wings, remove the steering wheel, buy a Momo wheel with the Ferrari emblem in the middle, connect it to a pair of highly illegal FIAMM airhorns and I would be all set! Oops-and also removed the Toyota badge from the hood. Result-a wonderful car costing one fifth of the least expensive Ferrari and fooling 99 percent of the population . The Michelin Pilots are already on so yes it would be fun apart from getting sued by two major automakers.

Look at the facts. The latest iteration of the Supra has an inline 6 cylinder BMW engine, one of the best and most reliable engines ever made.. It is comes from an assembly plant in Graz, Austria known for high quality work. It has an 8 speed automatic transmission which I couldn’t fault. Purists yearn for a stick shift but I am afraid those are rare these days and before you get too depressed think of all the money you are saving doing stops and starts on the hills of San Francisco burning out the clutch. I met a guy at Watkins Glen back in the days when they still had F1 races at that wonderful circuit. He lived in SF , had a Ferrari workshop and made a fortune replacing Ferrari clutches. So don’t be too upset.

The Supra only comes in coupe form, if you are desperate for a convertible buy its sister car the BMW Z4.

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The 6 cylinder engine pushes out 382 hp, plenty for most of us, those who need more should spend a bit more and buy GM’s new sensation the Chevrolet Corvette. Before I get too carried away there are one or two things are really didn’t care for.. The so-called driver assist package is a pain, especially the lane-centering and most of us don’t use adaptive cruise control. If you do you are not a Supra driver. Not looking for 0-60 in 3.7 seconds or not to 100 in 9.5!

The stiff suspension was just fine on the twists and turns in Northern California and with the accurate steering it was fun to drive. I stuck my neck out so let me stick it out again. This wonderful sports car is too good to be called Toyota Supra. It deserves a more exciting , more upmarket name. Lexus GT? Just a thought.

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Anyway, after my week with the Supra came something very very different. The Toyota 4Runner. Very different indeed . The one I had for test had a very competitive price of around 38 thousand dollars. Built for conquering Utah it has 5 seats, massive alloy wheels, a special cargo basket-and no, we are not talking Whole Foods folks-plus a 40 qt accessory cooler with massive rubber tie-down straps. Perfect for all the food and drink you will need after a long, exhausting drive in the desert. There is absolutely no question in my mind that the 4Runner is the quintessential Julie Andrews machine-it would certainly climb every mountain! (For the uninitiated please watch the Sounds of Music”.) The 4Runner has been conquering off-roads for over 35 years and some parts do feel 35 years old. Interestingly enough while my colleagues at Car & Driver loved the Supra they really, really did not care for the 4Runner.

I have to disagree. It is clearly very tough indeed and cosmetics are of little value when you are climbing in and out with muddy boots. I do agree with all the critics that the fuel consumption at around 16 mpg is not very appealing . Apart from the consumption the trip to Los Altos was perfectly agreeable. I was particularly impressed with the infotainment, for once you didn’t need a degree in Stanford to figure out how to find 88.5 or 91.1. Clearly the 4Runner wasn’t designed yesterday and if anyone knows that it is the bosses back in Japan. I am sure there will be a hybrid on the way and an EV version. In the meantime I would be perfectly happy to take the 4Runner into the Sierras or to the unforgiving terrains in Utah.

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The Mazda CX-5 which arrived hot on the heels of the 4Runner is a big family favorite.Depending on the interior specification the price ranges from 25 to 37 dollars. As always the various specs are confusing, one minute it is the carbon edition, next it is Touring, two minutes later Signature, heaven help someone wondering into the showroom faced by the bewildering nomenclature. Still, when it is all said and done you can’t really go wrong with the trusted 4 cylinder engine mated to a 6 speed gearbox . Having said that I could have used a little more oomph going to Sonoma Raceway to a Ferrari function. Allow me to digress, while I was there some kind soul suggested that I should take the F8 spider for a spin. It costs 10 times as much as the Mazda and depending which way you look at it-who needs it or one day I will have one- but whichever way you look at it the Ferrari on the back roads was a very special experience.

Back to the CX-5 , it is one of the most highly rated small SUVs and I can see it why. Easy to drive, nice interior, lots of very useful warning signs, good handling , quiet cabin. As with most cars these days unfortunately the infotainment is a nightmare to figure out, I wish all manufacturers would sit down and agree on a simple common system. It drove me insane in a 100 thousand dollar Mercedes and it most definitely drove me insane in the Lexus LC 500.

Final word on the Mazda-if you are in the market for a small SUV in the 25-35 thou price range make sure you take it for a test drive.It is that good.

The Lexus LC500 convertible turned more heads in leafy Belvedere than all my previous test cars put together. Every little Johnnie wanted to sit in as as did my old friend Peter, a fighter pilot from a previous war. If you can dodge MIG 21s you can dodge cyclists in Marin County.

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It was a close shave once or twice but thanks to the brilliant Michelin Pilot tires and the excellent handling and road holding we returned home unscathed. To prove that the Lexus was a true Grand Dame of the road costing 120 thousand making it the most expensive Lexus it seemed perfectly logical that we should pose for some photos outside America’s most famous and certainly most expensive restaurant-The French Laundry in Yountville. I never go to the wine country without my trusted lawyer who as I may have mentioned in earlier reports is probably the most respected intellectual property lawyer in Napa and Sonoma. Essentially if you try and launch a wine and call it OPUS 1 AND A HALF the letter suggesting that you desist would most probably come from him.

Truth be told we didn’t eat at the Laundry, as a. we didn’t have 4 hours and because we didn’t have two thousands to spare. Car lovers know The Grade, that infamous twisty road and we had a chance to confirm that the LC could cope with a road which is positively not recommended after a lunch at the aforementioned restaurant.

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We loved it. The interior is superb, the seats are perfection, the engine, a rumbling V8 is glorious. The 10 speed gearbox is equally fine giving us an excellent overall fun consumption of over 20 miles per gallon.

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What is astonishing is that this truly outstanding automobile should be virtually un-driveable in sunshine.…Think about it. You are an avid Toyota/Lexus customer. You get into a Prius and love it. My late wife Suzie had three, none of them have ever missed a beat.

You get yourself a place in the Sierras, you get a Highlander-an exception product. Finally you get promoted and splash out on an LC convertible. Big smiles all round especially as far as the salesman is concerned having detached 120 thousand dollars from you . So far so good. Then, this being California you press the button to open the top and surprise surprise you can’t see a damn thing! I am not exaggerating. The reflection from the various shiny surfaces is so strong that even wearing Maui Jim’s finest pair of sunglasses it is a struggle. As you can see from the enclose pictures in the end and in desperation we covered the shiny bit in black duct tape in an automobile costing 120 thousand dollars! In 50 years of testing this was a first. Now in fairness

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I should point out that driving at night is totally different, everything is crystal clear and perfectly readable. But dear friends at the Lexus interior design department didn’t you drive in California in the sunshine before you released this otherwise wonderful coupe?

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While the LC Lexus convertible was new to me the same cannot be said about Volvos. Not only have I been to Gothenburg where the factory is but I’ve been the proud owner of a Volvo S70-one of the all time great cars. If you ever visit Marin County’s somewhat quirky Mill Valley the chances are that you find find these 20 year old cars. Somewhat battered, a few dings here and there but still going strong. Consequently I must declare a bias here and now. I had the S70 for 12 years in the UK and it never missed a beat. Took it Europe, up mountains, down mountains, one country after the other in total comfort. Best seats, quiet engine, excellent fuel consumption and because of its square shape room for two sets of golf clubs and lots of luggage. Only sold it when I moved to California.

So you may ask how does the V90 &6 AWD compare? Well, in some respects the old S70 was way better. Namely the simplicity of the instruments and the excellent and easy to use radio. Volvo, like all manufacturers make a big song and dance about their infotainment system and like with the others figuring out it a bit of pain. Some of it is very clever such as the heating system, you can literally dial it all the way in increments of 2. Not really surprising as Gothenburg is not exactly a hot spot in January.

The Volvo’s best feature and I have been saying this for years is the bright red stripe warning in your mirrors warning that someone is about to pass . To the best of my knowledge all other manufacturers including Mercedes Benz use this wishy-washy little yellow blob which you cannot see in the sunshine. I do think this red stripe should be made mandatory.

As fas as the engine is concerned I am not huge fan of small, highly stressed engines with superchargers and turbo chargers to reach 316 horsepower at 5700 rpm.Give me a lazy V6 or even a V8 every time but that is just me I suppose. The 8 speed gearbox works well as does 4 wheel drive. We had a chance to try it on some unmade roads leading to wineries. Recently my neighbor and I have been visiting his clients. It gives me a chance to drive twisting roads such as the Silverado trail while Mel can pop in to clients such as the Fishers of auto bodies fame.

I suppose one might call their winery a side line and a very successful one at that. If only they were located somewhere else but but not next to a luxury “destination” resort called Solange.You have never seen such a pretentious place in your life. The bread was very good as was the Perrier which I suppose tells you all you need to know.The icing on the cake was when we asked for two glasses of Chardonnay. Huge glasses, tiny portions and a mind boggling 24 dollars. Each.No wonder we escaped as quickly as possible.

The V90 is competent, the handling is fine, the ride is firm which is how I like it.The fuel consumption was an impressive 33 miles per gallon thanks in parts to the speed limits in Napa . While this car could easily exceed 100 miles per hour it is essentially remains the dream of upwardly mobile folks with two small children, prams, diapers and all the other paraphernalia. All other manufacturers are desperately trying to knock Volvo off its pedestal but so far all they have all failed.

Big tack tack to the hard working folks in Gothenburg.

Whew, that's it for this past busy month...stay well stay safe and enjoy your freedom!