There have been a few Japanese sports cars over the years to make the world sit up and notice. Cars like the the Toyota 2000GT, Nissan 240Z, original Mazda RX7. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s when Japanese sports cars came of age, an era where the intersection of design, innovation, engineering, and motorsport success signalled their arrival, so much so we are still feeling the effects today.
One of the first cars to change the automotive landscape was the original Mazda MX5 (or Miata, or Eunos Roadster depending on your country of origin).
The MX5 was a bold move by Bob Hall, ex-Motor Trend journalist and then Mazda product planner, to convince Mazda management that a low weight, basic sports convertible was the right car to make during a time which such a car was out of favour. The team not only realised their vision, it showed that Mazda was willing to create interesting, engaging sports cars for the masses, even without a rotary engine. The MX5 changed the game for a lot of other manufacturers, as they too attempted to create their own version of the MX5, most failing to replicate the fun factor by loading the car with soft dynamics and unnecessary luxuries.
While the MX5 continues today albeit succumbing to the usual safety, emissions, market and bean counter demands, at least it is still in production. Something which cannot be said for the RX7, although its significance is no less impactful.
The last production RX7 can trace its roots back to 1992, essentially the series 6, and while there were changes over the years, the basic shape stayed the same.
So curvaceous and proportionate was its form, it remains fresh even amongst today’s most cutting edge sports cars. It sits so daintily over each wheel, the arches rising and falling evocatively front to rear, with every curve in balance with the next. In fact, the designers never wanted a straight edge on the RX7, something shown throughout the rest of the range but never executed as beautifully as on the Mazda halo car.
The last RX7 was also a race winner at the Bathurst 12hr proving the car wasn’t just a pretty face.
Another to win at Bathurst, albeit in the defunct top tier Group A category of the early 1990s, was the Nissan R32 GTR – Godzilla to most. So efficient, so ruthless, so fast, it tore the category a new one resulting in what we have today in V8 Supercars – a tightly controlled formula based around four door V8 sedans. Gone was the GTR from racing, yet it made a lasting impression.
In Japan the story was much the same with the Calsonic GTR cleaning up in Japan between 1989 – 1993 winning 29 of 29 races. It was also successful in endurance racing winning the Spa 24 Hour, the second Japanese maker to do so after the Mazda RX7 in 1981.
Yet the R32 GTR owed nothing to its European rivals. It was small, powerful, and clever with a straight six engine produced a beautiful noise and with a little tickle, a lot of power.
The styling was typically Japanese conservative yet had enough muscle in the right places. The guards bulged just enough, the four round lights at the rear signalling that this was something special up ahead. It was an example of what Japan can do when they set out to conquer in their own way.
Successive GTRs succumbed to the usual model increases in size, and never recaptured the essence of what made the R32 so great.
That issue of size may not have been a problem for another 1990s Japanese hero, the Toyota Supra. Past iterations were already on the larger side, mainly to appease a strong U.S. customer base, so when the A80 came to the party there were no questions asked.
While it may not have had as much success or recognition as some of its competitions, it nevertheless did fair well in Japanese championships, notably the JGTC/Super GT class.
The design borrowed somewhat from the classic 2000GT of the 60s with voluptuous styling and a 1990s de rigueur rear wing signalling its purpose. The rear of the car is where things got interesting with a row of lights giving the car a distinctive look while the rounded edges flowed all the way to the front. The interior was typical of Japanese sports cars of the time – driver focused with a wrap-around effect that was suitably inviting.
The Supra was fast, 0-60mph in 4.6 seconds fast, yet never quite achieved the sublime balance or feedback of its peers. For that you need to look to the Honda NSX.
In 1990, Honda disrupted the supercar establishment, showing a sports car could be easy to drive, ergonomic, fast, and affordable. It also helped that a certain Ayrton Senna had his hand in development, even if it was only one or two tests to give feedback. That’s enough for the NSX to achieve iconic status.
Mid-engined, two seats, rear-wheel-drive, this was Ferrari territory yet the NSX managed to look every bit Japanese and today still looks unique, perhaps even elegant with polite restraint.
Sitting low, occupants were treated to a wrap around cockpit with expansive views past the A-pillars, something which is difficult to achieve with today’s supercars. Sure, Civic switchgear prevailed but at least it worked and was reliable.
Senna’s input benefited chassis rigidity and balance, however the NSX never achieved the lofty heights of its Japanese peers in motorsport. Despite this, the NSX still managed to achieve cult status for Japanese car enthusiasts.
Want an NSX-R? Better have north of $200,000 in your account ready to go.
One other car which will no doubt soar in price is the Subaru Impreza STi 22B. It sits quietly in the shadows of the more popular Mazda RX7s and Nissan GTRs but this only makes it more attractive. Well, not that quietly perhaps. The sound of the Subaru boxer engine hooked many and is just one of the reasons this Japanese sports car was such a unique proposition.
Created at the height of Subaru’s involvement in the World Rally Championship, the 22B had all the right changes over the standard WRX STi, in all the right places. Most notable was the fender flares giving the car a more aggressive stance backed up with a larger engine capacity, Bilstein suspension, and upgraded just about everything else. Just over 400 were produced making this rally legend a very sought after car indeed.
This car was more than looks and higher spec parts and to this day it is often ranked as the most engaging Subaru STi WRX-variant to drive.
There were other cars such as the Celica GT4, Nissan 300ZX, Integra Type-R and Mitsubishi EVOs which were all unique and rewarding in their own way.
The Lexus LFA is the closest we’ve had to Japan at its best but most of the time they’ve once again resorted to playing Europe at its own game (Lexus RCF) when they should be doing their thing, their way.
The Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ, as wonderful a proposition as it is, doesn’t quite get the heart rate going like the others in this write up.
Importantly, there is no Honda NSX, no Mazda RX7, no Toyota Supra, no Mitsubishi EVOs and no Subaru specials in the marketplace with only the NSX slowly making its way towards a production line.
Hopefully Japanese car makers can ignite the passion in their people and inspire them to drive for enjoyment, and be proud of their industry that was once on top of the world.