Unsung heroes: top-class sports cars from Japan are overshadowed

Japanese manufacturers have given us some blindingly good sports cars that are often ignored in favour of rival nations' marques.
The first-generation Toyota MR2 of the 1980s combined Italian flair with agility and Toyota reliability.
The first-generation Toyota MR2 of the 1980s combined Italian flair with agility and Toyota reliability.

For some reason - and certainly there's nothing deserved about my good fortune - I have one of the greatest jobs around: driving McLaren MP4 12Cs in Woking, England, Aston Martins at Spain's famed Ascari circuit and even the occasional Rolls-Royce when I've had my fill of speed and mayhem.

And, no, it will never grow old. Happiness is having a long-held dream fulfilled and realising that the reality is actually superior to the fantasy.

The downside is that it's all a big tease. Like most of you, I can't afford any of the exotica I drive. Just as I'm getting used to the intimidating power of a Mercedes SLS or lavishing in the comfort of a fully loaded 760 BMW, the ungrateful miscreants (that would be the auto manufacturers) yank it out of my hands, reminding me that although I may get to sample some of the world's most hedonistic pleasures, I am not worthy of owning the real thing.

I might, however, be able to afford the 1993 Mazda RX-7 I just drove. Oh, I'd avoid its garish banana yellow paint job - a more subtle steel grey might better ward off the constabulary. And I'd certainly not opt for the equally showy chromed wheels, that's just a little too California chic for me. But I certainly do like the price tag, with third-generation RX-7s going for as little as US$10,000 (Dh36,700) on many car sales websites.

And your 10 grand buys a whole lot of car. Sure, there's no keyless entry and the steering wheel is grotesquely thin, as was the style back then. But there are two turbochargers on board (something the current RX-8 could desperately use) and the 1.3-litre rotary engine sounds like a cross between a high-revving superbike and a turbocharged refugee from Le Mans. And, while 255hp may not sound like much these days, true performance is about power-to-weight ratios and the third-gen RX is very light indeed.

Boy, does it handle. No fancy "track-based computer-controlled vehicle stability system" needed, thank you very much, the 1993 RX (like its two predecessors) just offered basic scintillating handling, its almost ideal 50:50 weight distribution and double wishbone suspension needing no electronic enhancements to straighten a road, no matter how twisty.

To be sure, the last RX had its problems. Mazda reduced its curb weight by 100kg compared with its predecessor and, although that improved performance, the diet made the car feel fragile. Also, for some reason Mazda thought it could almost double the price of the third-gen from the previous RX-7 and still retain a captive market. Sales tanked: fewer than 100,000 third-gen RX-7s were ever made, while the first version sold almost 500,000 units. The result is, despite the first two generations selling in big numbers, the RX-7 has a relatively small following. Unlike comparable European sports cars of the era, you just don't see RX-7s on the road much anymore. Indeed, until I started driving this one, I had not thought of Mazda's spunkiest sports car in ages and had not seen it being driven for years.

Sadly, the same is true of many an extremely estimable Japanese sports cars. Porsche 911s of any era remain sought after, but when was the last time you heard anyone lament the passing of Nissan's 300ZX? Yet, the ZX - especially in Turbo guise - was a giant killer, its 300hp humbling many a supposed thoroughbred. Other than a few devotees, hardly anyone remembers the 300 - a shame because, other than brake discs that seemed overwhelmed by the 3.0L's power, the car was far more reliable than the European sports cars of the time.

And what of Toyota's first-generation MR2, which was (especially in supercharged guise) my favourite car of the mid- to late-1980s. It was the perfect sports car: small, incredibly agile and the mid-mounted, 145hp, 1.6L supercharged four was effervescent, if not overwhelmingly powerful. Later versions were rounder, sleeker and more powerful, but those first MR2s were as close to Italian-like sports car purity as Toyota has ever ventured.

Even lowly Subaru dipped its toe into the sporting arena, giving us the quirky but amazingly capable SVX. Perhaps not a pure-bred sports car, the 1992-1997 SVX was, nonetheless, a major accomplishment for the fledgling car company. Many is the auto journalist who has commented that if the SVX had just been wearing a Porsche badge (like a 911, it featured a "Boxer" six-cylinder engine and a clever all-wheel-drive system), it would have been a bestseller.

Alas, like the last Mazda RX-7, it also had Porsche-like pricing, something the hoi polloi was loath to accept from the upstart Japanese automaker. And, although its fans will no doubt disagree, the company's incredibly capable WRX only achieved true mainstream popularity in England. In most other countries, it remains a cult classic for the wannabe rapper set.

In the end, of the Japanese marques, it is only Honda that has had a lasting effect on the sports car fold. Perhaps it's a result of the company's long commitment to Formula 1 and Indy Car, or maybe its products just hit the mark, but even then (with apologies to all the Prelude and S2000 lovers out there) only the CR-X (inspiration for the new CR-Z) and the almost-mythical Acura NSX rank as truly historic.

Other than that, the mainstream automotive world has never given Japanese sports cars their due. And that's good news, making them cheaper for you and me.

Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM


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