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Gary Kubo - Behind The Scenes

The most important person you know nothing about

Aaron Bonk
Aug 15, 2012
Photographer: Courtesy of Myles Bautista
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Photo by Amanda Harvie

The annals of Honda history are filled with predictable firsts. The first nine-second pass, the first use of wheelie bars, the first gathering of racers under the guise of Frank Choi’s Battle of the Imports. Poignant milestones, all of them. Sometimes, though, it’s the people or events you’ve never heard of who’ve made the most significant contributions. Sometimes, it’s the people you’ve never heard of who matter most. Gary Kubo’s contributions to the Honda performance community aren’t few, aren’t always recognized, and date back more than 20 years. Undisputedly the first to transplant Honda’s twin-cam B series into the then newly released ’92 Civic, Kubo went on to devise one of history’s first truly street-driven, race-capable turbocharged Hondas and, later, along with his wife Lisa, campaign one of the turn of the century’s quickest and most competitive drag Hondas on the planet. Despite Kubo’s accomplishments, he remains admittedly quiet. Until now.

HT: How did you first become interested in Hondas?

GK: You know in high school when your parents get you a car? That’s the car I ended up with. I was actually heavily into skateboarding. I almost had a career doing that. The car stuff came out of nowhere.

HT: Skating?

GK: Yeah, that’s what I did since the fifth grade, in ’84–’85. I skated for Vision Skateboards during ’90–’91 and had a 12-foot vert ramp that I built in my parents’ backyard.

HT: So what led to your involvement with racing Hondas and ultimately owning one of the quickest, most competitive FWD drag cars?

GK: I didn’t even know who the true OG Honda guys were, like Orly [Alcalde], Myles [Bautista], or Joe Morgan. I knew nothing about it. A friend of mine, Ben Shapiro—I used to skate with him—he had a Datsun 510. He used to go to all the street races, and one night he was like, “Hey, you wanna go to Sylmar?” After that I got hooked. It was weird; I took auto shop to get enough credits to graduate, but I kind of took a liking to it.

HT: When was that?

GK: That was in ’92, so I was 18.

HT: The Civic was supposed to be a stock commuter car?

GK: Yeah, it was a ’92 DX automatic. They didn’t even have them here in the States at that time. My parents got it and had it shipped from Canada as a graduation present. When I got it, everyone was like, “What the hell is that?” Once I went to that street race with Ben, next thing you know I’ve got an exhaust on the car, then an air filter, and then I lowered it. A friend who I went to school with talked to me about nitrous oxide [laughs]. He says, “There’s this new system called ‘the dry system’ that just came out. You ought to put it on the car. It’d be a sleeper.” It worked well for a few runs down the street, but we ended up hurting the engine right away. I was like, “Oh, my God. It’s a brand-new car; it only has 11,000 miles on it.” Obviously, the D15 with those small rods, it didn’t survive the straight 100-shot, but we didn’t know back then.

HT: A dry 100-shot on a stock engine?

GK: Yeah [laughs]. The car hauled ass, but it didn’t live. The car got parked, but I still went to the street races and, through another friend from high school, ended up meeting Myles Bautista. My friend told me, “You ought to talk to Myles because he might have an engine to get your car running again.” We started talking, and Myles goes, “Well, I’ve got those engines [D15], but I’ve got one engine, man, if you can get it in that car, it will haul ass. It’ll be the fastest thing around.”

HT: He was talking about the B16A, right?

GK: Yeah. This was early ’92, when the B-series VTEC didn’t exist [in the U.S.]. I was like, “Will it even work?” He goes, “Yeah, in Japan they had them in the older hatchbacks and CRXs. I’ll tell you what, if you buy it, I’ll help you get the components for it.” Back then, I didn’t know what to use. He didn’t even know. So I bought the engine and brought it back with no clue of how to put it in. It took about a year of me just looking at the car going “How do I get the motor mounts to work?” I ended up going back to my high school metal shop to make a pedal assembly and some motor mounts—real crude stuff.

HT: That was the only way, though, since the hydraulic-clutch-type B-series transmission, which everyone now knows bolts directly into the ’92–’95 Civic, hadn’t been invented yet, right?

GK: Yeah. I eventually got it all in the car and then, next thing you know, the computer’s different. The timing was a coincidence—the ’92 GS-R had just gotten released. I took a gamble and went to Sierra Acura in Alhambra [California] and bought an ECU. Next thing you know, bing, it fits right on. I knew nothing about electrical—nothing. I just bought a manual, kept looking at it, and eventually got the car wired up. I got the lights to work first, got the door lights to work next, got everything else to work. I’d ripped a lot of stuff out of the car that I didn’t have to. I didn’t know back then, though. I took it to Terminal Island [Raceway], popped the hood, and Myles was like, “Oh, crap! You’re the first one!” Nobody had done a B swap into a ’92 Civic yet.

HT: That was truly a rare sight back then. What happened next?

GK: I had that running normally aspirated for about two years and then decided to turbo it. That’s when I met Herman Chan and Steve Kwan from Drag [Competition Products]. He [Chan] said, “There’s this brand-new, big back-plate turbo that I’m coming out with that will be the hot ticket.” So I saved up some money and bought it. I didn’t have enough money to buy an exhaust manifold so I ended up making one. I pretty much looked at what he’d done with the intercooler piping, too, and fabricated my own. Before you know it, the turbo kit’s done. I ran that for about three or four months without any idea of how to get the fuel enrichment done.

HT: You obviously had no type of aftermarket engine management, but no rising-rate fuel pressure regulator either?

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GK: Nothing. We didn’t know about Vortech FMUs [fuel management units]. Nobody had fully investigated them yet. Just researching through the HKS catalog, I saw the AIC, the Additional Injector Controller. I bought it, took a chance, and welded four bungs on top of the intake manifold and, with some experimentation, got it to work. With just a couple of runs down the street with a K&N air/fuel meter, I figured it out. If the car’s pulling, it must be right.

HT: You don’t see engine management technology like that anymore.

GK: It was just a knob. There was a “gain” and what rpm to start it at. K&N came out with the first air/fuel gauge. That’s what I used to tune with. Next thing you know, we ended up taking it to Battle [of the Imports]. I think that was in ’95. It ran 12.20 right out of the box without any nitrous, no dyno tuning, or anything.

HT: How long were you the only one with a B-swapped ’92 Civic?

GK: I think right after mine Charles Madrid did one. Until the ’94 Integra showed up, there was no direct way to get the engine to drop in because the motor mounts were totally different.

HT: That’s when Honda engine swaps began to explode.

GK: Yeah, and Charles Madrid was, at that point, the one to immediately do them.

HT: What was your involvement with Pro-Motion, the small retail shop that’s grown into one of the largest wholesale parts distributors?

GK: There was Eugene Inose, Jeff Louie, and one other partner. They started a small accessory shop in Montebello right off of Montebello Boulevard. With hard work and business smarts, they made that thing grow really big. They became distributors for a lot of larger companies, like DC [Sports] and Stromung, back in the day, and K&N. A friend of mine, Eric Valdez, who was working at Pro-Mo—the friend who introduced me to nitrous—said, “You should consider running your car at Battle.” I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t have the money.” So he said, “Well, let me see if Eugene and Jeff wouldn’t mind helping with some of the components.” They did. We got the car running, got a new nitrous system, some suspension, and some slicks.

HT: So Pro-Motion was your first real sponsor?

GK: Yeah. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have made that race in ’95.

HT: Weren’t you later involved with a shop in Santa Barbara, California?

GK: Actually, that was a shop that I owned with a guy named Daisuke Hashimoto. We called it Zeroyon. This was about a year after we ran at Battle with my Civic. He had a red del Sol with a Drag turbo kit on his single-cam. We tore everything out of it, put a B16 in it, and built it just like the Civic engine that I had. We tried driving it and didn’t do very well, so we had Steph [Papadakis] drive it, and it ended up running an 11.20 at its very first event.

HT: Your wife Lisa is predominantly known for driving your Civic. Were you behind the wheel at first?

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GK: I never really drove, even at Battle. I don’t know…I was never into that.

HT: So you had more of the builder mentality and less of the driver attitude?

GK: Yeah, I don’t know what it is. Maybe I was over-anal with the car’s performance. I just never had the urge to drive. I did a couple of times—not very well [laughs].

HT: How did Lisa ultimately take over as driver?

GK: Stephen was a big factor in helping us with the driving and the technique because, obviously, he was doing it a lot longer than we were. As Steph got more hard-core, moved away from the carburetors, went turbo, and did the motor swap, he started doing well and I started thinking, “Well, at this point there’s really no hard-core female racers in import racing.” I saw it as an opportunity. I was like, “Lisa, we need to rethink this.” I’d planned on building the car for me, but there were hundreds of other guys out there already. She’d always wanted to drive.

HT: Tell us about her first pass.

GK: The first car she drove, that engine came from that [Hashimoto’s] del Sol. Another friend of ours with a white [Civic] CX bought that setup from us—Eddie Ramos. He goes, “Hey, Lisa, I know you’ve been wanting to drive. You want to try driving this car?” First pass out she went 11.90. The next pass it went 11.81. I was like, “OK, this is gonna work out.” We saved money and got all kinds of stuff to get our car back together. We wanted to build a totally hard-core race car like Steph and Viet [Lam] had.

HT: This was still long before the car was campaigned with its multicolor paint scheme, right?

GK: Yeah, that was like two years later. From there she started working four jobs, we got all of the components, I ended up cutting that old cage out, and we started building our own custom cage—a full chromoly deal. We ripped everything out of the car. The engine stayed the same as always, a B16. Along the line I ended up meeting a friend of mine, Harvey St. Mary who owns Harv’s Performance Center [in Whittier, California], and he talked to me about a new [engine management] system, Fel-Pro [later Speed-Pro, now FAST].

HT: Most everyone else was using Accel DFI at the time. Were you the first ones to implement Speed-Pro into a Honda?

GK: Yeah, before it even came out I had a meeting with both the founder and marketing manager. We built the first engine, a B16, went to the dyno, and it made like 600hp at the wheels. We were only making like 400 before. That was when stuff started getting hard-core. We ended up going to C16 race gas. We started meeting more people, and I came across Tod Kaneko and Jon Kuroyama who, at that time, were at Fastrax. Tod told me, “The turbo you have is great, but you’re gonna need something super hard-core—a full T4 series.” I think that’s when the car instantly transitioned from 11s into low 10s and 9s. Working with Tod, I started understanding how to read compressor maps and how backpressure affects the tune-up. There was just this wealth of knowledge on turbocharging from him.

HT: Why’d you stick with the B16A for so long as opposed to a 1.8L engine? Was there a secret to that engine? You guys never broke.

GK: We were never the ones who had all the resources, but we were the ones who always paid a lot of attention to really minute details. The higher-funded race teams would have all these parts that the average person couldn’t afford, but they either didn’t know how to use them or didn’t maximize their potential. A lot of people were saying, “Oh, it’s a small engine and it’s not gonna make the power.” But after learning from Tod about airflow…pounds per minute…I started thinking, “How much difference is it going to make if we’re pushing this much boost?” I mean, the horsepower numbers between the [stock] B16 and the [stock] B18, it was not that much. We started building and making little improvements on the engine—small things like 1⁄2-inch head studs when nobody thought of that. Everyone else was popping head gaskets.

HT: You were using 1⁄2-inch head studs way back then?

GK: Yeah, we were actually the first ones to do it. We did that like in ’93. Everybody else was using regular 8620, 7⁄16-inch ARP studs with a modified metric thread on the bottom so they’d bolt on. Now we could torque the head from 70 lb-ft to 120 lb-ft. That made a big difference. Everybody else was running only like 25 psi, and they couldn’t keep an engine together.

HT: There weren’t many who had the wherewithal to do that back then, no?

GK: At that time I was going to school at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, and they had an automotive machining and engine rebuilding class that I took. We ended up going on a field trip to a local machine shop—Taylor Engines [Jay and Barbara Steel, Marvin Grogan]—one of the longest-standing machine shops in SoCal. The quality and attention to detail they put into their machine work was far more than what I’ve seen from anybody else. As I started working with them, little ideas started popping up. They were like, “Why don’t you start putting half-inch studs on these engines so you guys can crank the crap out of the boost?”

HT: Did you have any mentors early on, or did you learn on your own?

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GK: Going to school at Rio Hondo College and becoming a student of James G. Hughes, he was a great mentor during the beginning. Obviously, they taught the basics of machine work, basics of assembly, basics of electronics and diagnostics, but most of it came from—and I’ve always felt very fortunate for this—I’ve been on the road ever since I got into automotive racing, and I’ve been in the racing business ever since. Every time I’m on the road, I learn something new. The hands-on [experience] for me is far more of an advantage than somebody who’s just going to school. I had the luxury of both.

HT: How would you compare your hands-on experience to those who learn from books or online?

GK: You need to have both. The Internet stuff is great because it’ll give you an idea of where to start, but at the track, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. You have no choice because it’s all on you for your team to make the next round. Being tech savvy with books is important, but if you can’t apply it to the racing environment, you’ll fail. You don’t have all day to figure it out like a science project. Keep the system you have going as simple and as practical as possible. At the end of the day, all that matters at the races is the winner, so don’t make it so complicated.

HT: Your car was built piece by piece back then, upgrading components after almost every race. What do you think about cars today that are built in one fell swoop. Is there a right or wrong way?

GK: The reason why that’s evolved is because most of the information necessary to be able to race at the level of the fastest cars is out there. Nobody has to do the really hard-core R&D from the get-go. Most of the foundation has been established by people who’ve been racing back when we had no choice but to figure all this out.

HT: Does that take any of the fun out of it? Does it take away from the experience?

GK: I think it’s better if you start from scratch because, as you progress, you learn and you get a solid foundation and experience of exactly what’s happening, whereas if everything’s thrown at you, it’s like you only know what you need to get to the race, which I kinda understand—the whole point of racing is racing. You’re not building a car as a science project.

HT: How crucial was 1990s street racing to today’s current state of Honda performance?

GK: Not only did it start the momentum for the aftermarket industry, but a lot of the enthusiasts who got into street racing lived troubled lives as youths, so it helped clean them up. As the cars began getting quicker, the demand for aftermarket parts came. If it wasn’t for that, I can almost assure you that none of these big companies making parts would even be around because a lot of the people who own these companies used to go to the street races and run their cars. I don’t want to name names, but they were there.

HT: You were never a part of any racing crews. Why was that?

GK: I hung around some crews. I did get a lot of help from Street Image Performance. I definitely got a lot of help from Precision Racing. Wicked Racing helped us a lot. I was always kinda doing my own thing [laughs].

HT: When you and Lisa began racing professionally, did you ever envision how big the sport compact racing industry would one day become?

GK: Absolutely. As soon as the people who were in their mid-20s who had jobs and families started coming in, they started spending their own money. As the field grew, people like NIRA started jumping in, as well as IDRC, NDRA, and eventually NHRA Sport Compact was created. Of course, Frank [Choi] was the visionary from the get-go with AIRA, which is now IDRA. I just saw this vision. I saw the same thing happen in skateboarding. I always refer to skateboarding because I learned so much—starting from the beginning, and then getting shop sponsored, and then getting factory sponsored—I saw the growth. It’s a business thing. Everything grows and you see patterns and opportunities to get into before it’s too late.

HT: You guys held your own against some high-dollar teams like General Motors for some time. Did these high-budget teams’ involvement hurt your career?

GK: I don’t think so because, although they may have had more monetary resources at that time, NHRA/NDRA had created very strict and professional rules to abide by. Aside from aftermarket transmission advantages, the playing field was extremely level. I think teams like General Motors coming in was a positive opportunity. Most may say no, but I look at the big picture as a complete motorsports package to benefit the industry—marketing dollars, new vendors, new audiences—not just the racing. I’ve obtained many new friends, contacts, and vendors for the field I’m involved in now thanks to OEMs such as General Motors.

HT: What was the fastest the Civic ever ran?

GK: The fastest we ever ran was an 8.80 at River City Raceway in San Antonio [Texas] at 168 mph.

HT: What’s your favorite racing memory?

GK: I would say VMP [Virginia Motorsports Park] because every single race Lisa raced there, we won—from the first event that Frank ever put on out of state for Battle, we won, all the way until we ran the Saturn and won there, too.

HT: Where’s the Civic now?

GK: The Civic’s at my mom’s house. It needs to be restored and fixed, but we have all of the parts.

HT: So you’re saying it could actually hit the track again someday?

GK: I don’t think so, not competitively. I mean, as fast as the cars are going now…

HT: What contributions can we trace back to you?

GK: I’ve never thought of it that way, but probably the motor swap being a reality. I would also say how serious we took racing. We were one of the smaller teams, always swimming with the big fish.

HT: I think you’re being a bit modest. Some might say your car paved the way for street-driven turbo Hondas.

GK: Maybe, but there were other cars that Drag and AK Miller did previously. You could say we were the early Sport Front Wheel Drive–type cars that could actually go to the track, throw slicks on, and compete against the race cars. I never thought of it that way, and I never thought the car was gonna run that quick. We were all pretty shocked. Albert Medrano ran an 11.61 and we ran an 11.71. I remember Myles looked at me and said, “Bro, the car just ran 11.71!” I was a skateboarder. I was like, “OK, well is that good or is that bad?” [laughs]

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HT: What was your and Lisa’s racing budget like back then?

GK: When we committed to go racing full-time, we literally had maybe a hundred bucks a week to live off. A lot of it did come from help from friends. Viet Lam [Pro Import co-owner] helped a tremendous amount with offering to pay for some welding on the car and slicks. We didn’t even have money to eat because we spent so much on the car. He and John Hong [Pro Import co-owner] took care of us. They made sure we ate; they even rented a car for us because we didn’t have a way to get the race car from ADF [Advanced Design Fabrication] to here. They didn’t have to do that, but they did.

HT: With such a small budget, how did you make things work?

GK: Paying attention to details. Racing was our job, so we had to win to live. It was so bad that I’d go to Pit Crew for blown-up cable trannies. All of their blown-up B16 blocks that their customers just wanted the head for, I wanted them. And they’d give ’em to me. I’d actually make a bunch of trannies off of leftover parts. We never had to buy a tranny or block from a junkyard thanks to Mike [Huie, owner]. We were like, “If we play this right and we win, we can make a living.” And we actually made a pretty damn good living doing that, and it was fun.

HT: Any regrets?

GK: No regrets. Everything we achieved was planned, and we kind of even planned when we wanted it to happen. I’m a plan fanatic. If it doesn’t work, I have a Plan B ready. We were like, “Well, we’ve got to try to run 8s by this session.” We got with our team and were like, “OK, what do you guys think? What’s your input? What do we do at the next race so we can still win and not blow up but next race for sure do it?” We kind of tickled at it, little by little. I thank skateboarding for that. I mean, seriously, [laughs] that’s where I learned it from. Strategies.

HT: Talk about some of your sponsors.

GK: The main family responsible for getting us into professional, full-time racing was definitely Extrude Hone. We were taking parts there to do cylinder heads and intake manifolds, and I became really good friends and close to the owners, Ed and Bob Melendez. We kinda got talking, and they elected to further help us buy the components we needed for the car to get us to the level we needed to be at to compete. He didn’t give us like 100 grand for living and for parts, but I’d tell him, “This is the clutch we need, this is the turbo we need.” Little by little, we upgraded the car. If it wasn’t for the Melendez family, that racing dream would’ve never came true.

HT: Did it pay off for Extrude Hone?

GK: It did, but we didn’t’ have the power of the Internet back then, so in order for them to do a lot of advertising, it really depended on magazines and TV. I think the audience never got a chance to see it as most of the races were aired around 2 a.m. Today, we could video something and put it on YouTube for free. That would’ve really helped them out.

HT: Are you happy with the direction of Honda performance today?

GK: Sure. I’m hoping that it’ll continue to grow. We need to build that foundation again that we had in the early ’90s so that more enthusiasts and people who own businesses can say, “OK, well, we want to commit to this. Let’s go for it.” Some companies have done that, like ACT. Dirk [Starksen, founder] started at Kennedy Clutch—real small—grew, put in a vision, made a plan, and now ACT is huge. Same thing with Dave [Hsu] at Skunk2. He started off small and got bigger and bigger. If the same sort of thing could’ve happened with racing, I think a lot more people who’ve raced could’ve stayed and still had a career. It’s been done in NHRA, it’s been done in NASCAR, it’s been done in Sprint Car. There are people who full-time race.

HT: And then you’ve got enthusiasts in California who have nowhere to race and are barely able to legally modify their cars.

GK: Yeah, that’s the only problem I see because when we go to the East Coast, there’re still a lot of cars. It’s tremendous. All kinds of imports. There was a time attack race recently and, man, they had to shut the gates by 10 o’clock. It was like, “Where are all these people coming from?” California’s tough because we don’t have any tracks but Barona, Bakersfield, and Sacramento. We’ve got no more Fontana, no more Palmdale, no more Carlsbad. If you really want to pursue a drag racing career, you unfortunately have to move out of state. Fortunately, we still have road courses along the West Coast, and events like Global Time Attack are doing a phenomenal job at adding a new twist on import racing. It’s definitely one of the few sanctioning bodies that’s focused on giving back to the racers.

HT: If you could own any Honda, what would it be?

GK: I would say another ’92 [laughs]. Yeah, I kinda want to get one, but I need the time to be able to do it, and I’m afraid that if I get one, it’s gonna be like, “Oh, I’ll just do this.” And then “this” will turn into more and more and more.

HT: What’s your day-to-day routine?

GK: I’m mainly in charge of all engine development for [Christian Rado’s time attack team] World Racing. I come up with a game plan of what we want to target performance-wise, build the engine, go test it, and if there’re any problems, study the data and figure out why this is happening.

HT: All time attack engines, right?

GK: It’s focused on time attack-style engine development, which is very grueling because you’ve got to have an engine that not only makes 1,000hp to the wheels, it’s got to make it now. It’s got to have like 750 lb-ft of torque at like 4,500 rpm because, if not, as soon as you get out of the turn, all the Vettes and the Vipers and the Porsches, they’ll just pass right by you. Many of the vendors and parts we used in the drag racing program are still involved today with the time attack program.

HT: With all of the tools and technology you have access to today, do you ever wish you could go back in time and implement something into the Civic?

GK: We were always confident with the parts and tools we had. They were more than adequate for the plans and goals we’d set. I’m kind of a keep-it-simple kind of person. I like having trick stuff but not so trick that you’re at the track all day trying to figure it out. We’re there to race. Our number one goal is to try to win that race.

HT: You worked for MoTeC briefly. Tell us about that.

GK: I started off assembling sensors. Toward the end I did a lot of assembly of steering wheels and ADL dashes and telemetry boxes. It was a good experience working there, very organized. If you wanted to learn more, it was all on you. If you wanted to just sit down, do your assigned work from 8 a.m., and clock out at 5 p.m., that was fine, too. I have much respect and inspiration, mentor-wise, for founder Jim Munn. He taught me a lot in a very short period and made learning comfortable and realistic.

HT: Back to skateboarding. What’s your best trick.

GK: My favorite trick that I finally wired and got down was a 540 McTwist. I barely learned tre-flips last year. It took me forever. I was like, “Wow, I finally learned tre-flips and I’m almost 40 years old!” [laughs]

HT: Any final words?

GK: I’m usually the one who really never says anything. I’ll never boast or comment on automotive sites or chats. But I guess I’ll say something now [laughs]. It’s been fun. I’ve had a pretty fortunate life and have experienced many positive things that most people my age haven’t. I’m just kinda quiet and live a balanced life of happiness. Life’s too short to be negative and unhappy.

By Aaron Bonk
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