Best Japanese Sports Cars
Japanese cars are very well-engineered, quiet, reliable and even luxurious, but for many, the Japanese supercar may as well be an oxymoron
Most high-performance car enthusiasts go moony-eyed while discussing European supercars. And for good reason. Bellowing V12s, screaming V10s and V8s, tyre-shredding performance and styling that makes the heartbeat faster — that’s where names like Ferrari and Lamborghini and Porsche reign supreme. Triple-distilled automotive high performance? It’s not just the holy trinity of Ferrari, Lambo and Porsche. BMW has their much-vaunted M division, MercedesBenz has AMG, Audi has their RS series, Volvo has R-Design and even Jaguar has SVR (Special Vehicle Operations), all of which produce extra-shouty fast cars. Nobody knows if it’s the Bratwurst or the Focaccia or the Riesling, but clearly the Europeans know a thing or two about building supercars. So where does that leave the Sashimi? In a puddle of Teriyaki sauce, that’s where. No, really, Japan doesn’t figure in the supercar discussions very often.
Sure, Japanese cars are very well engineered, quiet and reliable. Even luxurious. But for many, the Japanese supercar may as well be an oxymoron. However, tread with caution if you’re going to dismiss Japanese high-performance cars, because they can most certainly go neck to neck with almost anything that Europe can produce. Over the last 50 years, some of the best, most memorable supercars have come from Japanese manufacturers. What they lack in V12 engines and dramatic styling flourishes, Japanese high-performance cars make up in everyday usability, reliability, handling and finesse, without compromising on things like acceleration and top speed. In India, a country where fuel economy matters more than anything else, Japanese manufacturers haven’t really sold any ‘supercars’. However, they have taken the occasional stab at cars that offer a bit of excitement, and we’ll come to these a bit later in the story. Meanwhile, to settle the ‘can Japan do supercars?’ question, let’s take a look at some absolute beasts that have emerged over the last few decades. This is, by no means, a comprehensive list of Japanese supercars, but simply a sampling of some of the very best.
MAZDA RX-7 SERIES 8
While the RX-7 was first launched in 1978, the third-generation car, which was launched in the early 1990s, was perhaps the most memorable. A unique take on the high-performance sports coupe, the Series 8 RX-7 (produced from 1996-1998) was powered by a sequential twin-turbo, and a twinrotor Wankel rotary engine that pumped out 276 horsepower. The car could accelerate from zero to 100kph in around five seconds, and could hit a top speed of 260kph. Nobody would have expected a relatively smaller manufacturer like Mazda to take a chance on the quirky rotary engine and stick with it for two decades, but Mazda did, and the Series 8 RX-7 was sheer brilliance.
Before they did the LFA, Lexus (a subsidiary of Toyota) was seen as a very competent luxury car manufacturer that made lux-barges for wealthy, unimaginative middle-aged bankers and dentists. With the LFA, Lexus didn’t just shed that image, they blew it into the weeds. The LFA is not just the most impressive supercar produced in Japan, it’s the most intense, exhilarating, and completely demented supercar ever produced in the world. Powered by a howling, screaming 4.8-litre V10 that makes 550 horsepower and redlines at 9,000rpm. With its forged aluminium pistons, forged titanium connecting rods and solid titanium valves, this engine is a work of art — at least as good as, and perhaps, better than anything ever produced by any European manufacturer. Only 500 units of the LFA were produced, each priced at close to US$400,000. Today, values have appreciated, and you’d be lucky to find a used example for $800,000. The best supercar in the world? This one just might be it.
MITSUBISHI 3000GT VR4
Co-developed with Chrysler, the Mitsubishi 3000GT coupe was launched in 1990, and was powered by a twin-turbo V6 that produced 300 horsepower, which went up to 320bhp on later versions. Mitsubishi chose to go with full-time four-wheel-drive on this car, along with four-wheel steering, active aerodynamics, and electronically controlled suspension. The car could accelerate from zero to 100kph in less than five seconds and hit a top speed of 265kph. It was a memorable sports coupe, which many believed, was far ahead of its time.
TOYOTA SUPRA MK IV
Toyota first launched the Supra in the late 1970s, but things got really interesting only in the early 1990s, when the company launched the fourth-generation Supra. Powered by a twin-turbo six-cylinder engine, the fourth-generation (A80) Supra packed a 326 horsepower punch, could accelerate from zero to 100kph in 4.6 seconds, and was capable of doing speeds of around 260kph. The Supra has cult status among Japanese performance car enthusiasts, featured prominently in the 2001 hit, The Fast and the Furious, and remains a big hit with aftermarket car tuners. Owners continue to modify the MK IV Supra with bigger turbos, NOS kits, bigger wheels and tyres, improved brakes, and what have you. The Supra is Japanese supercar royalty, no question about that. (Toyota launched an all-new Supra last year. The car, developed in collaboration with BMW, is plenty capable but nowhere near as charismatic as the old, MK IV Supra of the 1990s.)
Back in the late 1960s, Toyota and Yamaha joined hands to produce the Toyota 2000GT, a stunningly beautiful rear-wheel-drive coupe. Powered by a 2.0-litre straight-six engine that produced 148 horsepower, the 2000GT was a limited-production car, and just 351 units were produced from 1967 to 1970. Back then, the 2000GT was priced at close to US$7,000 and today, on the rare occasion that one shows up at an auction, prices can exceed US$1.2 million. Even James Bond loves this Toyota — Sean Connery drove one in You Only Live Twice, and Daniel Craig says the 2000GT is his favourite Bond car of all time. Believe us, the 2000GT was as super as cars get.
The Datsun 240Z, which was launched in 1969, was also an iconic performance car of its era, and is still fondly remembered by the cognoscenti. Produced from 1969 to 1978, the 240Z (also known as the Nissan Fairlady Z in some markets) was a rearwheel-drive coupe that was powered by a 2.4-litre inline-six, which produced 150 horsepower. Four-and five-speed manual transmissions were available, and the 240Z could accelerate from zero to 100kph in just eight seconds, and hit a top speed of more than 200kph. Later iterations of the car included the 260Z and the 280Z, with power output climbing to 170bhp. The 240Z was one of the world’s top sports cars of its time, and earlier this year, a 1970 model sold for US$900,000 at an auction in Japan.
Here, we’re talking about the first-generation Honda NSX, which was launched in the year 1990, and its production continued till 2005. The NSX was one of the greatest supercars to ever emerge from Japan, what with the legendary Ayrton Senna having played a role in the development of its chassis and suspension. Even Gordon Murray, the genius engineer who designed the McLaren F1 supercar, once said that the NSX was the inspiration behind the F1, and that the NSX chassis was way better than almost any European high-performance car. Powered by a 3.0-litre V6, which featured Honda’s VTEC (variable valve timing) system, the NSX boasted 270 horsepower, which later went up to 290bhp when engine size was increased to 3.2 litres. The NSX could accelerate from zero to 100kph in less than five seconds, and hit a top speed of around 280kph. The handling was sublime, and the car was also way more reliable than the Ferraris of its time. Honda launched an all-new NSX in 2016, which is a hybrid in keeping with the times. It’s competent, but simply not in the same league as the old NSX.
NISSAN 300 ZX
performance coupe segment. The 1989-spec Z32 Nissan 300 ZX was powered by a 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 that produced 300 horsepower, allowing the car to accelerate from zero to 100kph in five seconds, and hit an electronically limited top speed of 250kph. In 1990, Nissan got the acclaimed movie director, Ridley Scott, to direct a commercial for the 300ZX, where the car was shown as being faster than a superbike, an F1 car and even a fighter jet. The commercial was aired only once, at the Super Bowl XXIV, and was never used again, with the Nissan management not wanting to encourage street racers. That commercial lived on, on YouTube, and so does the car’s ‘wild child’ reputation.
NISSAN SKYLINE GT-R
The first Skyline GT-R was launched in the late 1960s but our favourite model is the fifth generation car — the R34 Skyline GT-R — also known as the Godzilla. Launched in 1999, the R34 was powered by twin-turbo 2.8-litre six-cylinder engine, which produced 330 horsepower, propelling the car to a top speed of about 300kph. Tuners like Nismo and some others, routinely fettled with the GT-R’s turbos and engine internals to coax anything between 500 to 800 horsepower out of the Nissan straight-six. This was a sledgehammer of a performance car, with brutal, unrelenting power delivery.
SUBARU IMPREZA WRX / MITSUBISHI LANCER EVO
Two completely different cars from two different manufacturers, and yet, the two are almost always mentioned in the same breath. Each wouldn’t be the same without the other. Both cars were launched by their respective manufacturers in the early 1990s, and battled each other for the next 15 years in the world rally championship. There were many different versions, but engine sizes ranged between 1.8 to 2.2 litres, with Subaru going with their ‘Boxer’ four-cylinder engine, and Mitsubishi with their line-four. Both cars started losing steam by the mid-2000s, but by then, they had already reigned supreme as giant-slaying super-sedans that offered radical performance for the slightly unhinged. Those were the days.
JAPANESE HIGH PERFORMANCE IN INDIA
India is the land of fuel economy. For the vast majority of car buyers here, nothing matters more than mileage — the greater number of kilometres a car can do for every litre of fuel, the better. So, of course, India isn’t the best market for flogging highperformance cars. Still, for what little it’s worth, the Japanese have given it a shot in the past. Let’s take a quick look at some of the go-faster cars that were introduced in India over the last few years
Maruti Zen Carbon/Steel
In the early 2000s, Maruti did a two-door version of the much-loved Zen hatchback in India. This was available in two versions — Carbon and Steel – and had the regular Zen mechanicals, with no changes made to the car’s 1.0-litre four-cylinder engine that produced 60 horsepower. Still, with its lightweight bodywork and close-ratio, slick shifting 5-speed manual gearbox, the twodoor Zen at least had some basic sporting ambition. For a country starved of sports coupes, this was the best budget hot-hatch you could buy in India two decades ago.
Maruti Grand Vitara XL-7
A seven-seater SUV, one from Suzuki at that, should be the least viable candidate for boasting any sporting credentials. And yet, the XL-7’s claim to fame was its outstandingly brilliant engine. Codenamed the H27A, this 2.7-litre V6 produced 185 horsepower and 250Nm of torque. It was a creamy-smooth, high-revving engine that loved to be thrashed and made orgasmic noises while rocketing the XL-7 to tripledigit speeds. Build quality, handling and everything else about the XL-7 was quite ordinary, but its V6 took it to a different league altogether.
Honda City VTEC
Sold in India in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Honda City VTEC was a proper ‘hero car’ of its time. Its 1.5-litre fourcylinder engine featured Honda’s variable valve timing technology, and provided proper high-rpm thrills that enthusiasts crave. Power output was only around 105bhp, but tuners fettled it with passion, fitting aftermarket air-filters, remapped ECUs and free-flow exhaust systems for a performance boost. It wasn’t a ‘supercar’ of course, but for car enthusiasts in India back then, the City VTEC was a godsent.
Maruti Baleno RS
Back in 2017, Maruti tried its hand one more time at doing a hot hatch with the Baleno RS. This little hatchback featured a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine, which produced 102bhp. With lightweight bodywork, compact dimensions, and slick manual transmission, the Baleno RS was fun to drive. Unfortunately, its 102bhp wasn’t really enough to elevate the car to proper hot-hatch status, and its bigger price tag (as compared to the regular Baleno) didn’t do it any favours either.