THE REVIVAL OF JAPANESE SPORTS CAR: TOYOTA, HONDA, AND NISSAN
For Americans who lived through them, the 1990s bring back memories of, among other things, Bill Clinton, the young Internet, certain memorable sitcoms and an eclectic music scene. But for countless auto enthusiasts, the 1990s bring back memories of another sort the golden age of Japanese sports cars, the Toyota Supra, Acura NSX, Mazda RX-7, Nissan 300ZX, Mitsubishi 3000GT, Mazda Miata and others were all high performance and in some cases relatively low-cost vehicles.
That inspired a generation of racers and tuners and made their way into massive film and video game franchises. Now, in 2020, trucks and SUVs all but rule America. But Japanese automakers are not giving up on these small, agile sports cars. Some have been there all along and others are making a comeback.
But why do this now when some automakers are determining that cars are less profitable and tougher to sell? Are the new Japanese sports cars living up to the legacies of the old? And will they stick around?
THE HISTORY OF JAPANESE SPORTS CAR
When Japanese automakers first began importing vehicles into the U.S. in the 1950s, the cars they sold were mostly conservative and affordable. There were even a few stumbling blocks for these importers, including a skeptical American public and a lack of knowledge about the American market. But over time, they improved.
In 1973, Toyota set up a design studio in the U.S. to help executives in Japan understand a market so different from their own. Japanese companies also made major innovations in manufacturing that yielded low production costs and strong, consistent product quality. They focused especially on reliability and earned a reputation for making cars that were far more dependable than those made in Europe and the U.S. But they weren’t content with this reputation.
Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Toyota also became forces in racing throughout the 20th century in the hope of proving to the world that Japanese engineers could also hold their own on the track. And that’s one of the things that we’ve learned just got the research recently, is that consumers associate Toyota with QDR quality, durability and reliability.
Toyota became the first Japanese automaker to win the GTO class in the International Motorsport Association GT series in 1987. Actor Paul Newman raced Datsun’s and Nissan’s in the 1970s and 1980s, winning several races during that time, including two SCCA won championships in 1985 and 1986. The second of the two was Nissan’s fiftieth national championship.
The Mazda RX-7 won several IMSA races in the 1980s, winning over 100 races by 1990 and becoming at that point the most successful car in IMSA history. Japanese automakers were already trying to lure American performance enthusiasts at least as early as the late 1960s.
And early example that garnered a lot of attention in America was the Datsun 240Z. The 240Z was the car that got Americans thinking, well, wait a minute, maybe Japanese cars are not just about inexpensive economy cars that I commute to work. And that 240z popularity convinced Japanese makers that performance cars were worth the effort in the U.S. At first, these efforts were incremental. Some of the names that became iconic began as variants of other cars.
For example, the Toyota Supra began as a variant of the Toyota Celica. I love the idea that the Evo still looks like a Lancer or I love the idea that the WRX still looks like a Subaru Impreza. Like that’s cool. And Americans thought that was cool, too. And so, they kind of took their formula and said, well, we can do it a different way.
The vehicles were also different from American sports cars, which tended to be larger and stocked with eight-cylinder engines. Japanese sports cars were compact light and had smaller engines, often using turbocharging to ramp up horsepower. They took advantage of technological developments such as electronic engine controls.
The Mitsubishi 3000, for example, had a very sophisticated all-wheel drive system for its time. They were also cars that took risks and did things differently from each other and from other competitors. Mazda, in addition to the Miata, they had the RX-7. It was powered by a local rotary engine, which was unique in the industry. Nobody else but Mazda was building Wankel by that time.
You know, there were some German vehicles in the 1960s that had Wankel’s, but nobody else is doing it at that point. Mitsubishi went for all in on technology to try and use technology to make the cars fast as it possibly could be. Toyota with the MR-2, they decided to make a lightweight mid-engine sports car. You know, again, something quite different from what its competitors were doing.
So there were different approaches. You know, it wasn’t all variations on the same formula. And while they were not exactly cheap, some of them could be had for less money than cars with European pedigrees. Notable cars from the era included the Mazda RX-7, the Toyota Supra, the Mitsubishi 3000, especially the V.R. for version and the Nissan 300ZX. On the less expensive end, there were cars like the Subaru WRX and Mazda Miata.
Honda even tried its hand at making a supercar, which in the U.S. was called the Acura NSX. It started at just above $60,000 in 1991, equivalent to about $150,000 in 2021 terms. Despite some criticisms, the ambitious vehicle impressed the auto world and was significantly less expensive than many high-end exotics from European makers.
What made these cars different is that it was really the first time that you see a lot of really high-performance bordering on high end Japanese cars, because typically those cars had been about efficient performance or about economy cars. It was really a time when Japanese manufacturers had kind of come into their own and American buyers realized those cars offer a lot of bang for the buck.
THE DECLINE AND DISAPPEARANCE
Over time, many of these cars and others like them disappeared from product line-ups in the U.S. or became overshadowed by other concerns. By the time it was discontinued in North America in 1998 and in Japan in 2002, the Toyota Supra had become something of a Hollywood star, thanks in part to the 2001 film The Fast and the Furious, where the car was driven by the late actor Paul Walker.
The NSX ran from 1990 until his discontinuation in 2005. The Mitsubishi 3000 was discontinued in the U.S. at the end of 1999, and the Honda 2000 was axed in 2009. A few things happened. First, many carmakers began focusing more on sport utility vehicles and as time went on, competition among different makers for better and better cars raised sticker prices.
By the ’93,’94-time frame, as those prices kept creeping up, the sale started tapering off. Finally, these cars were never meant to be massive sellers. More expensive vehicles like the NSX were aimed at attracting a small number of buyers in any given year. A few cars held on, though. The Nissan Z line left the U.S. in 1997, but it returned in 2002 when the 350Z was introduced. The Mazda Miata has been continuously available in the U.S. Subaru also kept the tracks and are staterooms on its Impreza sedan.
The wagon versions were discontinued in the U.S. But look at some of the examples of the companies that stuck by what they do. This is who we are. We’re going to keep doing it. And now they’re reaping the rewards. Apart from those that never left or left briefly, a few made bold returns to the market.
The Acura NSX was brought back in 2016. The new NSX bears some impressive technical innovations, including three electric motors, two on the front wheels that can help steer and brake, and a third that acts like an electric turbocharger.
In this case, we wanted to explore and experiment with things that could enhance that driving experience by taking advantage of three electric motors that work not only to help you accelerate, it has driven by wire braking and the front motors are independent. And so, they can like when you row on a boat, they can be like oars and support your steering and put either left or right.
The shape of the car is also designed to maximize cooling. And Honda was especially concerned with maximizing visibility out the windshield, developing new technology to meet safety regulations while still giving the driver a wide view of the road. On the lower end of the price range, Acura’s parent Honda has also kept in production some sportier versions of its mainstream passenger cars, such as the Honda Civic Type R, which has been in production since the late 1990s. Toyota is another automaker making a big bet on sportiness.
CEO Akio Toyoda, who took the helm in 2009, famously ordered the company to stop making boring cars. That has meant a new commitment to high performance and provocative design. Everything that comes through Toyota Gazoo Racing gets Akio seal of approval meaning he’s driven it, he’s pushed the vehicle to its absolute limits and he’s kind of certified it.
I think it’s kind of rare in the automotive industry to have an executive or the president of a company take that type of pride of ownership and responsibility for the products that he brings to market. Perhaps the biggest news in recent years has been the comeback of the Supra, which Toyota himself was involved in heavily test driving the vehicle at the famous track in Nürburgring Germany.
Supra is a halo car and it is not meant to sell in high volumes. Somewhat controversial is the fact that the car is built in partnership with BMW and has a lot of BMW parts in it, including a BMW engine. Despite rankling some diehards who might have preferred an all Toyota product, auto analysts think partnerships like this may be the best shot automakers have at building these lower volume, but attention-grabbing cars going forward. And Supra is attracting new attention to Toyota.
The folks that are coming in from Supra are a lot of them are coming out of the near luxury coupe and prestige luxury cruise line up to trading in other brands like Corvettes and Porsche. Toyota has a sub-brand dedicated to high performance called Gazoo Racing. The Gazoo racing name has been around globally since 2007, but is being introduced to the U.S. with the Supra.
The Supra will fall under the Gazoo Racing sub-brand. The Supra is joined by a recent refresh of the Nissan Z., which received a great deal of coverage in the automotive press. This is a positive sign for Nissan, which in 2020 was struggling financially and dealing with fallout from the arrest and subsequent escape of former chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn.
These vehicles have generated a lot of excitement. If there is one gripe among some auto enthusiasts, however, it is that there seems to be less of the experimentation and risk taking than there was 30 or 40 years ago. Maybe as they start to transition to electric or make doing hybrids in these vehicles, we might see, you know, some more interest creeping up for some of these new vehicles if they do something truly different. Our Japanese automakers making a good choice by staying committed to sports cars.
THE SWINGING PENDULUM
The strategy has a few things in its favor. First, there is big business in nostalgia. Hollywood film remakes and reboots, retro fashions and music and brand name revivals seem to be popping up everywhere. In an era of electric cars, autonomous vehicles and all sorts of futurism, companies are betting that at least some buyers want a chance to own a car they once loved or never had the chance to buy.
American carmakers are bringing back old names like Bronco, Blazer and Gladiator. It’s becoming a time when people who would have remembered Japanese performance cars but couldn’t afford them are now coming into their own. So say younger Gen Xers and maybe even millennials that have fond memories of some of these odd cars from the 90s. There is a way to do this right of course, by ensuring the resurrected product honors its namesake.
If that goes wrong, it can tarnish a legacy in some circumstances. You’ve seen that the only thing nostalgic about a car or a truck or an SUV is that they brought back the name. And it’s really nostalgic in name only. And I don’t think people like that.
I think that it feels like to the average consumer, well, you’re just doing this so that all of us who are of certain age will go by it because we remember them as opposed to something like the Nissan Z or the Ford Mustang. Secondly, emphasizing sportiness and high performance gives Japanese automakers the opportunity to carve out unique niches in a very competitive marketplace.
Japanese cars used to stand out for their dependability, but other car companies have caught up. And while dependability counts in a company’s favor, it might not be the strongest way to lure buyers, especially those at the profitable higher end of the market. I think what’s happening now is a lot of Japanese automakers are really coming into their own and saying, hey, let’s be proud of who we are and let’s advertise that. Let’s infuse our car not with the thing that makes it American, but the thing that makes it uniquely Japanese. And we’re going to stand on that and walk away and go, there it is.
That’s the best we can do. Until recently, Toyota’s only in-house performance badge in the United States was Toyota Racing Development. But TRD badges had been found mostly on trucks and SUVs. With a few exceptions, the automaker surprised the world when it came out with TRD versions of the Camry, midsize and Avalon full sized sedans. These were cars that previously had been the embodiment of the boring vehicles.
Akio Toyoda wanted the company to get away from. Toyota has expanded its TRD line-up among SUVs with recent examples such as the TRD Rav 4. A bout 70 percent of the U.S. auto market is sport utilities and pickup trucks. And automakers everywhere have gotten on board. Many automakers, especially American ones, have dropped most sedans and coupes altogether.
Releasing a sports car this time is likely to be accompanied by modest sales expectations. But that halo effect is valuable, especially for companies such as Nissan, that needs to maintain confidence that it can make great products. And Toyota, that needs to remind people it can be a bit dangerous.
They see something like performance cars as a way to get people excited about the brand, even if it’s not the car that they expect to sell in the huge volumes. It’s the one that gets people’s attention about the brand. And while the pendulum has swung very far in the direction of SUVs and trucks in recent years, there are some who think that at least partially, it could swing back.
If you look at the sedan market and that’s continuing to slowly decline. But if you look at the sports coupe segment, that’s actually on the rise as predicted, to continue to rise over the next couple of years. So what that tells me is whether all your neighbors are out buying SUVs.
There’s a big group of us. I shouldn’t say big, there’s a smaller group of us that don’t want to give up the fun of driving a sports car. The effects of the coronavirus on work habits and commuting could also have an impact on what kind of cars people buy. Consumers who spend less time in their vehicles may opt for something that is designed less for long commutes or hauling kids and instead for the thrill of taking a drive.