We love old Japanese performance cars. You love them. Anyone with any petrol in their DNA does, and a big part of the reason why is how amazingly advanced they were for their times; more advanced, even, than a lot of cars today.
Yet they were accessible; you could dream of owning one. They were working-class heroes in a way that most of the pinnacle BMW M cars, Audi RS machines and AMG muscle have been priced out of. Ultimately the late-20th-century Japanese performance car had every last ingredient to be as cool as penguin feet.
And yet they didn’t last. One generation, maybe two was the best that most ended up getting. Gone before we wanted them to be, they were brewed with a recipe that fell foul of a changing automotive landscape. Here we’ll give you a run-down of some of the most complicated 1990s Japanese cars – and why they were canned.
The GTO was a true tech-fest. Powered by a 3.0-litre V6 with 24 valves and the option of two turbochargers. It was packed with advanced technology. All-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, active aerodynamics and electronically-controlled suspension were among its at-the-time mind-boggling innovations.
Contemporary tests found it to be way, way quicker in a straight line than the twin-turbo Mazda RX-7 and Nissan 300ZX, but all that technology was expensive to produce, and prices were going up fast. Sports car sales in key markets slowed down considerably through the late 1990s as a result, and after eight years on the market the GTO, which had been through a couple of minor facelifts, was abandoned.
Since we mentioned the 300ZX, let’s go into a bit more detail. Nissan designed the original Z31 in the very early 1980s to succeed the 280ZX. It bore Japan’s first mass-produced V6 with as much as 222bhp without turbos. It was a great Japanese sports car in its time, but the Z32 brought the real tech. Hydraulically-actuated rear-wheel steering was among the headlines.
Variable valve timing had become standard on the 3.0-litre V6, while twin-turbo models got dual intercoolers and a pair of advanced Garrett turbochargers. The Z32 was designed with the help of the Cray-2 supercomputer via an early form of computer-aided design software – a seriously advanced touch. The ZX was killed by unhelpful exchange rates and spiralling production costs.
The Subaru XT, or Alcyone, is one of those cars that often flies below the radar, possibly because so few remain in running order. Built for just seven years and one generation, it was available with front- or four-wheel drive. A triumph of angular 1980s design trends, it was Subaru’s first non-utility car and came fitted with a 2.7-litre flat-six that forced the Japanese authorities to classify it as a luxury car in a much higher tax bracket.
Inside it had an instrument binnacle that moved with the steering column, a button for on-demand four-wheel drive, a joystick-shaped gear lever (because video games) and a 3D-imitation LCD display with orange back-lighting. The air suspension was height-adjustable, which was an incredible feature on a car this small. Subaru unfortunately chickened out of a second XT generation, plumping instead for the US-targeted and therefore flabbier SVX – more of which later.
The final Mazda to use the Cosmo name doesn’t need much explanation as to why it was too complicated. Built not just with a twin-rotor Wankel engine, it also offered a three-rotor unit. Naturally, both were twin-turbocharged and hideously expensive to maintain versus the smaller, more efficient and cheaper cars emerging at the time.
The Series JC lasted seven production years, throughout which it was sold on its technological prowess. It had a colour touch-screen controlling climate functions, mobile phone connectivity, GPS-based navigation, TV channels and more. This was, as a reminder, 1990. The damned thing was about 20 years ahead of its time, but expensive. Less than 8900 sold and the Cosmo was wound up.
Our second over-complicated Subaru is the SVX. It was Subaru’s first major sports assault on America, but while the ingredients were promising – try a 3.3-litre flat-six for starters – the overall package was a dim-witted and blandly designed GT that barely had the charisma to get out of bed. Its one (totally unnecessary) feature of note was a split-window arrangement pointlessly mimicking a racing car or one with gullwing doors.
Comfort was a priority and the four-speed automatic delivered on that. Eight-way adjustable electric front seats became available early on, among other trinkets. Stability was assured by one of two all-wheel drive systems: a variable setup that sent 90 per cent of the torque to the front wheels until they started to slip (sold in North America, France, Germany and Switzerland), or a permanent 36:64 per cent front-rear split as sold in the UK, Japan and other European markets.
Japanese versions got four-wheel steering as well, but all this technology pushed prices to a level that buyers simply weren’t willing to pay. Bye bye, SVX.