We think of Japanese cars as safe, solid and reliable. Justifiably so.
When they started arriving in the UK en masse in the Seventies, we were used to Austins, Fords and Vauxhalls that needed some sort of tinkering every weekend and refused to start on a slightly nippy morning. Datsuns, Hondas, and Toyotas, by contrast, ran like a metronome whatever the weather.
That’s all well and good, but hardly exciting. And because the world is full of worthy but dull Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas, we tend to forget that the Japanese are responsible for some of the most thrilling cars ever made.
We’re not just talking about turbocharged techno-fests like the Subaru WRX, Mitsubishi Evo and Nissan GT-R. Over the years, Japanese manufacturers have produced some quite brilliant sports cars. Here’s the Only Motors top five.
Datsun was comparatively little-known on the world stage as the Seventies dawned, so the management decided they needed a new halo car that could make a global impact. That car was the 240Z.
It was almost a carbon copy of the Jaguar E-Type. Here was a two-seater hatchback coupe with styling that looked like designer Wolfgang Goertz had simply taken a picture of the E-Type and squared-off the curves. Naturally, the engine was at the front, with drive going to the rear wheels.
Under the long bonnet lived a 2.4-litre, straight-six engine making an ample 150bhp. Nothing like as much as the Jag, but at least you could rely on it to start every morning. The 240Z arguably handled better than the E, too, thanks to a wider track. Inevitably, it proved to be a fine racing car and a surprisingly rugged rally weapon, winning the ’73 East African Safari.
What mattered most about the 240Z, though, was that it was cheap. When it went on sale in the USA, it cost just $200 more than the aged MGB GT. It was a huge success and spawned an entire family of ‘Z-cars’, up to today’s Nissan 370Z.
Honda had never really built a car like the S2000 before. There had been a run of dinky roadsters in the Sixties and Seventies, but nothing since then. But that relative lack of expertise didn’t stop Honda creating a car that was simply epic.
On first glance, the S2000 didn’t appear to be anything special. It was just another two-seater roadster, and not a particularly attractive one. No, the real fireworks were under the bonnet.
And what fireworks they were. The engine may only have had 2.0-litres and four cylinders, but thanks to Honda’s VTEC wizardry, it produced 236bhp and revved to a frenzied 9,000rpm. We believe that’s still a record for a 2.0-litre production car engine. Performance was in Porsche Boxster S territory. And the noise was astonishing.
The handling was tricky at the limit, and the digital rev counter looked awful. But they never broke and owners loved them. You can pick up a slightly ropey one for temptingly little money, now.
We can’t really have a list of great Japanese sports cars and not mention the MX-5. It single-handedly revived the whole concept of a small two-seater roadster when it was launched in 1989, a time when hot hatches were taking over the world.
Mazda did what Japanese car companies do so well in creating the MX-5. They took the best design ideas from Europe – the Lotus Elan in this case – and applied their own logic and rigour to the engineering and production. The MX-5 really was the best of both worlds.
And so it continues to be. Each generation has had its good and bad points, but all have maintained the principle of providing no-nonsense, wind-in-the-hair thrills. The current fourth-generation car takes a back-to-basics approach, loosing some of the flab and complication of the previous car. It’s easily the best MX-5 since the first MX-5.
The MX-5 struck a chord with motorists the world over and is the best-selling sports car of all time by some margin. Over a million have been sold.
The Cappuccino’s engine was cutting-edge at launch in 1991. It featured double-overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, a turbo and an intercooler. All to serve just 660cc and three cylinders.
See, the Cappuccino was built to Kei-car rules, which laid down restrictions on engine size – 660cc max – and horsepower. As such, there was only 63bhp to play with, though rumour has it the engine was severely held back. Some enthusiasts suggest it makes well over 100bhp with the restrictors removed.
Regardless, 63bhp was plenty in a car just 11ft long, less than 5ft wide and weighing 725kg. Performance was suitably sprightly with pin-sharp, rear-drive handing, thanks to claimed 50:50 weight distribution. So maintaining momentum was easy enough to worry plenty of contemporary hot hatches on a B-road.
The Cappuccino was sold in the UK from late ’93 to ’95. This writer saw it in a car magazine and liked it so much my dad organised a ride in one for my tenth birthday. I still occasionally scan the classifieds for one, though finding an example that isn’t full of rust is difficult – rust proofing was an option applied by UK dealers.
When Toyota announced it would launch a small sports cars, most people probably expected a traditional, front-engine, rear-drive coupe/roadster. So it probably came as a surprise when Toyota revealed the MR2, a mid-engined targa.
Surprising it might have been, but it was also quite brilliant. Launched in 1984, the first generation MR2 won accolades around the world. Performance was zesty with engaging, generally fool-proof handling. Though, like any mid-engine car, it would bite if you took liberties.
The second generation car was bigger and softer, but it was by far the most successful and longest-lived. The final, third-gen car went back to basics, finally becoming a proper roadster that quickly earned a reputation for being spiky if you over-stepped the mark in a corner.
Such is the affection for the MR2 that many enthusiasts are waiting for the day that Toyota will revive it. The GT86 was been a big success and now the Supra has been revived. So you never know.
By Only Motors