06/01/2009 00:00

The 10 best Japanese sports cars



James Ruppert's biography

There's an all-new Nissan Z car on its way, the 370Z, and just in case you hadn't noticed, the Japanese have always been particularly good at building sports cars.

This goes back to the 1960s and the Toyota 2000GT that appeared in James Bond's You Only Live Twice. Then the first of the Datsun Z Cars made our own MGB GT look dated, slow and badly built.

So if you can't quite afford a 370Z, what far eastern sports cars could rock your automotive world for less?

GALLERY: the 10 best Japanese sports cars

Toyota Supra

Toyota Supra (© Image © Toyota)

Sadly the Supra got early retirement from the UK market in 1997 just when it got really good with a variable valve engine, which apparently explains the preference among buyers in the know for grey imports. Also Japanese spec Supras come in all sorts of different flavours like the SZR six-speed non-turbo, Recaro-seated RZ and the targa topped Aerotop.

There are five and six speed manuals and a four-speed automatic that will hit 158mph and 0-60 in a fraction over five seconds, or in non-turbo form 143mph and 6.5 seconds to 60mph. Servicing isn't a scary prospect. At the heart of the Supra is the GS300 block from the loveable Lexus, and the service items are the same.

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Honda Integra Type R

Honda Integra Type R (© Image © Honda)

The Integra Type R was an uncompromised road-legal racer and totally unsuited to a quiet Sunday afternoon drive. It offered shattering performance, pin sharp handling and lots of lovely race car details. What Honda was saying was that only hardcore enthusiasts need apply.

However Honda core values were completely intact so even though this is a Honda with a very raw edge, it is not a temperamental highly-strung special. Attention to detail is still a Honda priority. However hard it is treated, the Type R will always be reliable.

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Toyota MR2 Turbo

Toyota MR2 Turbo (© Image © Toyota)

Baby Ferrari anyone? What we have here is a 348 that has obviously been shrunk in the wash. The ultimate compliment is that there are kits you can buy that change the MR2 into something that looks as though it may have come from Maranello. Personally I would stick with the real MR2 thing, provided of course that there is a busy Turbo powerplant screaming behind your left ear.

The Turbo is also a very special car for the simple reason that these models were virtually handbuilt. Toyota apparently subcontracted them to Yamaha, where some 2,000 a month were made. So this was never an official UK car, although it did end up in America, but there have been plenty of imports over the years which means we can now enjoy acceleration figures of 0 to 60 mph in just 6.9 seconds.

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Nissan Skyline

Nissan Skyline (© Image © Nissan)

The modern day list of driving icons would look incomplete without the word Skyline, which took an inordinate amount of time to officially reach the UK. Nissan themselves only brought in a token number (100) from 1997. Mostly the Skyline is a legend because it is sensational to drive. Four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, twin turbos and lots of clever electronics all add up to the ultimate driving experience.

That's why you want one and a GT-R R33 from 1994 is when the Skyline got a more muscular body and completely revised suspension. Serious owners though wanted the even more pumped-up V-Spec.

The GT-R R34 was brand new in 1999 and saw the Skyline slim down but get even sharper. Better turbos and cleverer computers meant this is an even more focused driving machine. Inside it is much more comfy and everyone loves the computer game type LCD screen on the dash.

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Toyota Celica

Toyota Celica (© Image © Toyota)

In 1986 the 4WD Celica GT-4 was announced and combined a powerful Twin-Cam 16V Turbo engine with a full-time four-wheel drive. Eventually World Rally Championship domination became a reality and the GT-4 just kept on getting better.

The sixth generation ST205 is arguably one of the very best. Introduced in October 1993, the sixth generation Celica was a development of the old model with a new body that was more aggressive than before with a striking design, which incorporated four headlamps at the front end, doing away with the pop-ups.

The GT-4 had much larger intakes for the engine compartment and brakes, plus air intakes on the aluminium bonnet and louvers for the turbo intake and escape of hot air. Hence it could hit 153mph, presumably in a forest going sideways, and get to 60mph in 6.1 seconds.

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Mitsubishi FTO

Mitsubishi FTO (© Image © Mitsubishi)

Just in case you wondered, FTO stands for Fresh Touring Origination which is par for the course when it comes to Japanese car names and acronyms. FTO at least sounds cool and thankfully it is a very cool car. It was launched into the Japanese market in 1994 with a transverse front wheel drive engine layout, independent rear suspension and four wheel disc brakes.

In fact it was so brilliant that the FTO was voted Japanese Car of the Year. Although there is a four pot 1.8 16 valve at the bottom of the range, quite rightly the most popular model in the UK is a glorious twin cam V6. The MIVEC engine delivers 20bhp and more torque. As fitted to the GPX and GPR it pumps out 200bhp at a truly inspiring 7,500rpm and that can be translated into a rapid enough 0-60 time of around seven seconds.

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Nissan 300ZX

Mitsubishi 300ZX (© Image © Mitsubishi)

Let's be controversial here: no Ferrari has ever or will ever be this good. When the Italian company was stamping out low tech, high price collector's items, Nissan was mass-producing a technical tour de force, which wouldn't break down or need a service after every thrash. A twin turbo, three-litre, 280bhp V6 means only two things, 60 mph in 5.5 seconds and a limited top speed of 160mph.

If that's not Ferrari class what is? It doesn't end there though because the chassis was a multi link job at the rear and it all came with active four-wheel steering which means grip and poise are hardly an issue. OK, so the rear seats are child sized (or non-existent in the Japanese spec short wheelbase version), but that is convenient enough for short trips.

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Mazda RX-7

Mazda RX-7 (© Image © Mazda)

It is gorgeous to look at with curves in all the right places and punchy supercar performance to go with the sensational styling: 150 mph and 0 to 60 mph in six seconds. Fast and indeed furious as the youngsters might say. This Mazda is not just another Japanese coupé, it is the most radical, exciting and underrated performance car ever and arguably several degrees cooler than a RX-8 and its trick doors.

As well built as a Porsche and arguably more involving than a dozen other Japanese clone coupés, the RX-7 always has been tremendous value for money. The high spinning Mazda RX-7 is where the appliance of automotive science has never been more dramatically demonstrated.

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Honda Prelude

Honda Prelude (© Image © Honda)

The simple truth is that if you can't afford or don't want Honda's NSX supercar this is the next best thing. As a driving machine the electronic four-wheel steering works extremely well. Cornering is never less than flat and secure with seemingly endless amounts of grip. The best Honda engine is the relatively small 2.2 litre, but it has V-TEC technology and the variable valves scream and sling shot the coupé forward at a tremendous pace.

With a top speed of 140mph and a 0 to 60mph time of just over seven seconds it delivers power aplenty. At just 2,000rpm there is certainly an enthusiastic response, but wind the revs up to 5,000rpm and experience an explosion of power.

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Mitsubishi 3000GT

Mitsubishi 3000GT (© Image © Mitsubishi)

In technical terms this Mitsubishi was arguably more sophisticated than a Honda NSX and also more powerful, but it was much cheaper and far more aggressive to look at and drive. It certainly helped that it not only had four-wheel drive but also four-wheel steering and a whole kitchen sink load of technical innovations.

Certainly the anti squat/dive/roll independent suspension helped to keep this hugely powerful V6 on the road. Indeed 'Active Airflow Control' involved all sorts of clever aerodynamic devices that operate automatically at just 50mph. I say just because the maximum speed is a substantial but limited 155mph. It will also get to 60mph in less than six seconds.

Being a Mitsubishi also means that it is very reliable, but in a dark colour it looks like pure evil.

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