What made the halcyon days of Japanese sports cars so insatiably desirable at the time? Wildly different approaches and solutions to the same problem, stunning design, and—here’s the important bit—the same or similar performance as European exotica for a fraction of the price. Tick, tick, tick. Arguably the 1990s produced the most iconic versions of any Japanese sports car in the Honda NSX, Toyota Supra, Nissan GT-R, and Mazda RX-7.
Note: This article loosely defines what a sports car is, essentially a bespoke body despite the Skyline GT-R inclusion, but in the very least a coupe.
But where we were absolutely spoilt for choice in the 1990s, by early 2000s it had virtually dried up save for a few icons. Just take a look at this chart mapping Japanese sports cars from 1990 to today:
Here comes Japan
In the 1990s Toyota were mighty. Their credibility was at a high thanks to WRC winning Celica’s starting with the pretty GT-Four ST185 and ending with the more brutish GT-Four ST205. These were rally bred coupes which looked the part on the road, especially the last gen ST205 with its giant wing, a must have item on any 1990s Japanese sports car.
Alongside those rally replicas was the MR2, a small coupe that started life in the 80s as wedged rocket now morphed into a smooth edged capable sports car.
Then came the A80/mk4 Toyota Supra. This was a big car by Japanese standards with a monster of an engine, gorgeous styling capped off with that de rigour oversized wing and characterful rear light cluster. Capable of producing huge amounts of power it never quite matched its contemporaries for handling yet was hugely popular none the less and immortalised in 2001’s The Fast and the Furious.
Since 1989, Mazda have been producing the MX5 and it still endures today much to the delight of enthusiasts the world over. Loved for its approachable price point, simple design, and fun driving dynamics the little roadster has seen off just about all-comers. Never giving in to the allure of more power, the MX5 has been firmly on the side of handling balance over pure performance staying true to its ethos of Jinba-Ittai (horse and rider as one).
Lining up alongside the MX-5 was the MX-6 and stunning RX-7 all sporting Mazda’s then curvaceous design philosophy. The MX-6 utilising front wheel drive, 4WS, with a silky smooth V6 and a couple of useable rear seats it was a car that could easily be a daily driver and perform plenty of other duties.
The series 6/7/8 FD RX-7 was Mazda’s halo car and to be honest, still is today despite ending production in 2002 with the ‘all-in’ Spirit R. Arguably the most beautiful Japanese sports car of all time the rotary powered car had the performance and handling to match its looks, giving Porsche a bloody eye a few times in Australia during the Bathurst and Eastern Creek 12 Hour.
Honda meanwhile changed the supercar landscape forever with the NSX demonstrating a supercar needn’t be a recalcitrant arse. Yes, Senna got in and drove it giving his racer-like feedback but the genius was really Honda’s. VTEC was born and Honda never looked back. Today, NSX’s are highly sought after and increasing in value.
The Honda Integra had been around since the 1980s but it was really in the 1990s when things started to get really interesting. The third generation Integra offered VTEC and amazing chassis balance and is known as one of the best front wheel drive cars of all time.
Like Mazda, Honda offered a mid-level car in the range to fulfil everyday sports car desires in the form of the Prelude. Previous incarnations never set the world alight but this generation had a hell of a lot more going for it including Honda’s VTEC technology.
Also like Mazda, Honda had a small sports car that was built for fun much like the MX-5. The CR-X (Del Sol) was a departure from the previous generation hatch with a unique body shape, removable roof, and Honda motorcycle inspired interior. As a front wheel drive car it never had the driving balance of the MX-5 yet provided just as much fun.
What else needs to be said about Nissan’s R32 Skyline GT-R? A monster on circuit in Group A guise, and with a small amount of fettling, a supercar destroyer on the road. Whenever an Australian delivered one was spotted in the wild, it generated as much awe and excitement as seeing any Ferrari or Lamborghini, perhaps more. It got a bit chubby with the R33 gen yet no less capable until the R34 generation rolled around to exert dominance on just about every other sports car on the market.
As the GT-R was limited to just over 100 examples in Australia, Nissan needed another mid-range sports car for the masses. Enter the 200SX (Silvia). A tyre smoking turbo manic which made the Aussie V8s of the day look tired and beaten, the 200SX gave most other sports cars in its price bracket the same treatment.
Not to be forgotten, the 300ZX offered a more GT experience and was actually Nissan’s true halo car at the time despite the GT-R taking that mantle for a few years. A big, wide, and low sports car it powered on in naturally aspirated form in Australia while Japan continued to pump out high powered turbo editions.
Mitsubishi got in on the act with their 3000GT (GTO), featuring an incredible amount of modern technology that was a little too clever for it’s own good. Hugely fast in a straight line, all that technology added weight making it a bit of a handful around corners. But they had a go, and it’s sad to think there are no more Mitsubishi sports cars available today.
They also had another mid level sports car in their range in the FTO. Here was a sports car that offered a V6 combined with front wheel drive and great proportions. Like the 3000GT it never quite competed at the same level with its contemporaries but it was at least another choice consumers could make.
The party is over…or is it?
The financial bubble in Japan had long burst by the early 2000s. Brands were cautious about developing costly bespoke sports cars particularly Toyota who went about treating their product line up as white goods which may have worked from a financial point of view but rendered the company soulless and uninspiring at least from an enthusiast perspective.
In the early to mid 2000s, Toyota ended up developing the Celica and MR2 into safe , consumer friendly products that never captured the imagination. The much loved hard top W20 MR2 giving way to a more docile convertible focused on driver enjoyment with a low cost of ownership and looking very much like a cut-price Porsche Boxster. This was Toyota at the height of their bean counting philosophy with their world beating rally inspired and developed cars a distant memory.
By the 2010s, things we’re looking up for Toyota once again with a return to building exciting cars again led by company president Akio Toyoda, and the focus was on a sports car that was easily attainable, had fantastic dynamics—essentially a sports car for the masses. The 2012 Toyota GT86 was designed and built in partnership with Subaru delivering a number of iterations over the years and is still on sale today and with a new model currently being developed.
That co-design and development allowed Subaru to bring the same car to market under the BRZ name with subtle changes and Subaru touches.
However, it’s been the return of one of the most iconic Japanese name plates that has caused quite a stir for enthusiasts, and that is the Toyota Supra. Its contentious co-development with BMW by using a BMW engine, infotainment, switchgear and more meant it’s come under fire from purists. Toyota cited huge development costs of producing a low volume sports car and while an opportunity may be lost, we at least have a Supra back in the line up.
The introduction of the latest Supra is significant in that it isn’t trying to redefine itself as a supercar in the mold of the Lexus LFA and Honda NSX, but more in line with a price point and performance we would expect of a Japanese sports car.
Honda’s NSX carried on and on well into the mid-2000s, some say long past it’s used by date eventually leaving the sports car duties to the S2000 which is now a highly sought after roadster that took the MX5’s front engine, rear wheel drive layout to new heights. And then…nothing.
That is, until the current Honda NSX, an exercise in attempting to recapture the impact of the original with some incredible technology permeating throughout the car. It may not have won the hearts of enthusiasts (which must be partly down to the price point), but it’s still an incredible achievement and we should be thankful Honda built one at all.
Honda have a winner in their Civic Type R, but are they ready to bring a small coupe or roadster back onto the market?
The Nissan 370Z may be long in the tooth, but it’s been a successful addition to the Nissan line up. Until the current shape R35 GT-R arrived on the scene in 2007, the original 350Z released in 2002 was the flag bearer for Nissan sports cars taking over from the hallowed R34 Skyline GT-R. Yes, the concept of the 370Z is almost 20 years old!
That R35 GT-R was a game changer however, storming its way through every European group test to take top honours. Elevated into a new class on price and performance it made similarly priced cars look silly and the likes of Porsche’s Turbo to have a good hard look at itself. It too continues to be on sale today.
The Mazda RX-8 had a tough act to follow replacing the stunning RX-7 as Mazda’s flagship sports car. Although lauded the world over for its unique approach to design and engineering, the rotary powered RX-8 eventually succumbed to rapidly rising emissions standards and was Mazda’s last rotary engined car in production. This left the MX-5 as Mazda’s only sports car in the range.
After the safe development of the NB, and the somewhat bloated NC, Mazda returned to its lightweight philosophy with the ND to applause the world over. Will this kick start a push for further investment into a new RX7? Head of design at Mazda, Ikuo Maeda is making it his mission to ensure the Vision Concept he designed sees the light of day. The biggest hurdle Mazda will face surely is in development of an reliable and low emission rotary engine.
All we need now is for Mazda to come to the party with a new RX7 and we would at least have ‘the big four’ back—Honda NSX, Nissan GT-R, Toyota Supra, and Mazda RX7.
The sheer variety of Japanese sports cars in the 1990s
There were two factors which made the 90s so exciting, the first being choice. While you might not be able to stretch to an RX7, there was an MX-6 or MX-5 available to you. Couldn’t afford an NSX? Here’s a Prelude or CR-X.
This is why the GT86 is such an exciting option, and why Nissan’s forthcoming Z car gives us something to aim for despite it being rumoured to be a heavily revised 370Z.
That Z car doesn’t need to be a technical tour de force as we’ve already got the GT-R to fill that role, and it doesn’t need to be as quick either leaving it open to fulfilling the role of a sporty GT similar to BMW’s Z4M from the mid-2000s, one that’s still capable of sub-5 second 0-100kph sprints.
The other factor is price. Offering similar performance (and at times superior) to their competitors, they were priced considerably less. And to undermine the onslaught of very capable and desirable European models, any new Japanese car needs to be offered at a lower price. Prestige and brand cache can’t be bought overnight if at all and brand perception is a difficult thing to change, it has to be earnt over time.
While this article focuses mainly on those models loosely defined term as a sports car, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the impact hot hatches and rally replicas have played in filling the void of dedicated sports cars.
The likes of Subaru’s WRX and wonderful STI 22B, Mitsubishi’s uncompromising EVO series, and Honda’s Civic Type R.
Lexus gave us the LFA, a one-off example of pure exotica and limited in numbers.
We will be welcoming the WRC homologation special Gazoo Racing Yaris with its wide body and trick mechanicals, and may yet see Subaru join the fold with a newly developed WRX.
It’s starting to look brighter, whether Japanese manufacturers have realised the need for their brands to once again be represented by fun, interesting sports cars, or whether they are leading development despite user research telling them younger demographics are only interested in gaming and the latest phone. Whatever the case it’s welcome.
As transportation shifts from moving humans from A to B perhaps it’s the sports car that will win out in the end. In order to do so we need options from all manufacturers at all prices. Maybe we are just getting started.