There are several reasons for prompting this article. Frustration of Japanese manufacturers (some, not all) for ignoring fun and exciting affordable sports cars, news of new cars that are coming and ones that won’t be, and reminiscing an old Honda advert.
I’m not old enough to remember the glory days of affordable Japanese sports cars flocking the market, that was 80s/90s stuff. I’m more from the S2000/350Z/RX-8 generation but even then, I do remember a time when Japanese cars were still exciting and appealing to young people.
It’s crazy to think now, in 2016, that something with a Honda or Mitsubishi badge could be something a small boy or girl would aspire to have. 10, 20 years ago that was the norm. Stuff like the Mitsubishi Evo and 3000GT, Nissan Z and Skylines, Mazda RX-7, Honda S2000, NSX, various Type R models, and about half a dozen Toyota sports cars were the stuff of bedroom posters.
Sure, everyone wants a Ferrari, Porsche, or Lamborghini but what these Japanese sports cars offered was something the Europeans couldn’t; attainability. You could save up and buy a Silvia or Integra if you really put your mind to it. The only way to buy a Lamborghini when you’re young usually involves dealing with Bolivian, erm, businessmen.
Look at the current crop of Japanese sports cars and you could count them with one hand. There’s the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ, Nissan 370Z, Subaru WRX, Honda Civic Type R, and Mazda MX-5. That’s literally it. Okay, Honda also do the NSX and there’s the Nissan GT-R but those cars so expensive they’re about as relevant as the Spanish Armada.
When I heard the news that Toyota were planning on making a hot version of the Yaris based on their WRC car, I produced a noise I can only describe as being ‘enthusiastic’. Finally, Toyota are back at making small, affordable (hopefully), fun cars. I’m sure it won’t be the last word in horsepower and performance, but the fact that Toyota are doing this should be celebrated.
I can’t recall the last time we had a small hot hatch from Japan. Okay, there’s the Suzuki Swift Sport but that car is getting quite dated now. Also, I have no idea what Suzuki are up to these days. They’ve got a few new small cars out, which is what they do best, but they seem like they’re intentionally trying to be under the radar with their new car launches.
Sports cars aren’t big volume sellers and they don’t do wonders for profit, but they’re important in other areas. They provide a ‘halo’ effect in the lineup and make brands more appealing. You want more people to be interested in your brand, make a sports car. Want to attract people into your showrooms, make a sports car.
Just look what the LFA has done for Lexus. It’s changed the way people perceive the brand. What used to be known as golfers’ cars are becoming seen as proper rivals to the Europeans. Now we’ve got their latest creation; the LC. That is a properly stunning looking thing that’s nothing like any other car on the market. Available with with a 3.5-litre V6 hybrid or a 5.0-litre naturally-aspirated V8, Lexus has all bases covered for customers either wanting an old-school GT or a high-tech modern luxury hybrid.
But other Japanese manufactures need to follow Lexus’ suit. Mazda just announced they weren’t going through with the RX-9/RX Vision Concept project. What could’ve been a game changer for Mazda and a much needed halo model, has now become nothing more than a ‘what-if’ scenario.
I can’t begin to describe how much I was looking forward to that car and my disappointment at Mazda for pulling the plug on it. The RX-9 or whatever it would’ve been called might’ve just been their FD RX-7 moment again. A car that would become an icon in the future. I understand Mazda’s reasoning, people on the internet shouting ‘make it Mazda’ won’t necessarily translate to it being a sales hit. Then there’s the engine. Rotary engines aren’t just there yet in terms of technology, efficiency, and reliability. But that doesn’t mean they should give up on the project.
It’s this mentality that’s plaguing Japanese manufacturers today. They’re still doing the same old things they’ve been doing since the 90s. There’s no interest or competition for pushing innovation. Risks just aren’t being made like they used to. If the sales figures or the return on investments aren’t projecting in the billions then there’s no point doing it.
Okay, that’s a bit of generalisation as there are exceptions, such as Toyota and Honda’s fuel cell advancements and Nissan’s EV development. But it does sadden me to think there was a time where companies such as Honda were known for their ingenuity and innovation. Nowadays they’re making a car called the Grace.
In Mazda’s defense they’re quite a small company compared to the likes of Toyota and Nissan who can afford to throw billions in to research and development for sports cars and halo models. But even Nissan have a history of promising a shiny new sports car only to bail on the project.
Remember the IDx concept? The small, rear-wheel drive coupe that was supposed to rival the Toyota 86? It was a retro-designed car aimed at young buyers and the Playstation generation. Nissan showed two fantastically cool concepts at the Tokyo Motor Show three years ago but nothing has come from it except firm suggestions that a production model won’t be made.
Fine, fair enough but where’s our new Silvia? Where’s the spiritual successor to the Pulsar GTI-R? Nissan desperately need a proper hot hatch in their range. The Note NISMO is all nice with its 200hp 1.6-litre turbo engine but it’s not available in all of Nissan’s markets. Then there’s the rumors the next Z car will be a crossover. No, just no Nissan. Don’t do it.
Then there’s Mitsubishi. What the actual hell happened? I can’t even begin to vent my frustration at them for 1) killing off the Evo, 2) concentrating on crossover/utility/SUVs, and 3) have no intention of making any sporty cars in the future. This from the company that gave us the Starion, the FTO, the 3000GT, ten generations of Lancer Evolutions, the Pajero Evo, the Colt Ralliart, and the Galant VR-4. The sad thing is though, with Nissan buying Mitsubishi there’s less chance of them coming out with a sports car in the near future if it’ll compete against Nissan…
I literally just had a thought now. Why don’t Nissan and Mitsubishi team up to make a new sports car together? They could share development costs to make it a plausible business model much in the same way Toyota and Subaru made the 86/BRZ. They could call the new rear-wheel drive coupes, I don’t know, the Nissan Silvia and Mitsubishi Eclipse? There you go Nissan and Mitsubishi, there’s something you could do in time for next year’s Tokyo Motor Show.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Toyota also have the new Supra coming which is being developed with BMW. That’ll fill the void left by the RX-9 and the rumours surrounding the Supra are mouth-watering. An inline-6 with turbocharging and hybrid technology in a rear-wheel drive coupe that’s supposed to be styled after the FT-1 Concept, yes please! If they get the pricing right it could be a huge hit.
Speaking of Toyota, I know it’s not a sports car but the C-HR is quite an interesting car for me. It proves Toyota’s designers are still capable of making a car look interesting, quirky, and unique. It also shows Toyota know there’s a young generation of buyers still out there.
‘Fun to drive’ that’s Akio Toyoda’s, CEO of Toyota, personal slogan. Toyoda often races around the Nurburgring for 24 Hour Endurance races. I also respect his adamant stance on autonomous cars, instead focusing on cars and humans.
Honda’s upcoming Civic Type R that’ll be sold around the world looks promising. There’s still rumours circulating Honda also have a small roadster in the works. Please, please let it be a modern S2000. Not to mention I’m rather excited for Infinti’s upcoming Q60, a handsome looking rear-wheel drive posh coupe set to take on the Lexus RC.
If this seemed like a bit of a rant, it sort of was. But it’s by no means hating on Japanese manufacturers, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s because I respect, admire, and remember the times when they made interesting cars that makes me want to see them go back to their past.
I know Japanese manufacturers don’t really play on their history and heritage like the Europeans and Americans do, but this is a case where they should. There’s no denying interest in cars is dying out. Autonomous cars, electric vehicles, and car sharing schemes are making buying a car for sheer driving pleasure a ludicrous idea.
But while we’re still able to drive with an internal combustion engine ourselves why not make them interesting, fun, and most importantly, affordable. If the Europeans and Americans aren’t going to make affordable sports cars, then the Japanese should. To keep car culture alive, sports cars shouldn’t be an impossible dream.