Take a ride down memory lane as Street Talk explores the incredible early ’90s output of Japanese sports cars and tuner contenders.
Do you remember when the best sports cars in the world came from Japan?
It’s hard to imagine if you weren’t there, because these days, the Japanese sports-car market barely exists. Okay, Nissan still makes a couple — the world-beating GT-R and the rather uncouth Nissan 370Z — and Scion and Subaru offer the affordable FR-S/BRZ twins. There’s also a new 2016 Acura NSX right around the corner. But otherwise, it’s a barren landscape in the land of the rising sun. The rest of the world has left it behind.
In the 1990s, though, Japan was showing everyone else who was boss. Let’s take a moment to appreciate what’s arguably the most compelling collection of sports cars a single country has ever produced.
With all due respect to the new twin-turbocharged NSX and its three hybrid motors, it can’t touch the legend that is the original NSX. Thanks to exotic styling and a mid-mounted VTEC V6 that could scream all the way to 8,000 rpm, the NSX fully lived up to its “Japanese Ferrari” nickname. Well, mostly; there’s one way in which the NSX has proved to be decidedly un-Ferrari-like, and that’s cost of ownership. Properly maintained, an NSX shouldn’t run you much more than any Honda/Acura product of its vintage. It’s that combination of exclusivity and reliability that makes the NSX a sought-after sports car to this day.
Younger driving enthusiasts will be more familiar with the recently discontinued RX-8, but the “FD” series RX-7 of the ’90s is the true king of Mazda’s hill. Boasting a lightweight, perfectly balanced chassis and a twin-turbo 1.3-liter rotary engine that cranked out roughly 250 horsepower, this RX-7 was a scalpel that could carve up the most challenging circuits with ease. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful cars ever built, and its intimate, wraparound interior was the perfect sports-car cockpit. Unlike the NSX, it’s not renowned for being unbreakable, but when an FD RX-7 is running right, it’s one of the most engaging cars you’ll ever experience.
Known as the GTO in Japan — Pontiac wouldn’t have liked it if Mitsubishi tried that one in the U.S. — the 3000GT was the tech-crazed member of this group. When the high-end VR4 model first came out, it was loaded with all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, adaptive spoilers, electronically adjustable exhaust tuning and adaptive dampers with selectable drive modes. Not all of these items made it all the way through the production run, but the 300-plus-hp twin-turbo V6 sure did, and it enabled this aggressively styled Mitsu to run with the world’s finest.
The Z Car has a long and illustrious history, but if you’re looking for the Z that blended style, performance and refinement better than any other, the Z32 series from the ’90s is where it’s at. Even the base car had a creamy-smooth 3.0-liter V6 that got you to 60 in the mid-6-second range, but naturally the Twin Turbo model stole all the headlines with its 300-hp motor that reached 60 a full second sooner. The turbo Z also offered a four-wheel steering system dubbed “Super HICAS,” and both models displayed cutting-edge style, including a slippery exterior and a futuristic dashboard with a rakishly sloped center stack.
Many enthusiasts will tell you that the Supra was the pinnacle of Japanese sports-car performance. The Turbo model’s inline-6 engine made 320 horsepower right out of the box, but as legions of tuners have since discovered, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As it turns out, Toyota engineered this motor to such exacting standards that it can easily be cranked up to 600, 700, even 800 horses without flinching. Some say there’s even more room at the top without compromising reliability overmuch. Sure, the ’90s Supra was relatively long and heavy, but the turbo-six’s reputation is second to none among those who know.
The NSX may have been the true Japanese Ferrari, but the midengine MR2 was a closer match in terms of physical resemblance, drawing heavily on the contemporaneous Ferrari 348. The ultimate “Mister Two,” of course, was the Turbo model with its blown four-cylinder that pumped out 200 horsepower. The MR2 Turbo required a firm hand in tight corners, as its mid-mounted motor made the car susceptible to Porsche 911-style lift-throttle oversteer. But with its removable roof panels, snick-snick manual gearbox and head-turning looks, this Toyota definitely deserves a place in the pantheon.
What a Run
We’ve limited ourselves here to American production models; otherwise, the Nissan Skyline R33 and R34 would have been at the top of the list, and Mazda’s singular Eunos Cosmo would have made the cut as well. Are we forgetting any others? What are your favorite high-performance rides from Japan’s glory days?
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