Things used to be so simple.Fast cars had two doors and a horse on the hood, four-wheel drive was reserved for safaris in Africa, and luxury cars came from Germany.
In the blink of an eye, that simple structure seems to have spun into an automotive identity tornado, and frankly, the madness is confusing.
The best steering out there can be found in a hopped-up econobox made by Mitsubishi, a capable off-roader can be found at the mall with a Stuttgart badge on the hood, and some of today's most luxurious cars are built by Toyota.
It's utterly impossible to predict what's going to pop out of whose factory doors these days.
As frustrating as this automotive disarray is, its bizarre nature means you don't have to be a millionaire to drive a luxurious car anymore, and you don't have to actually be in the desert to pretend you're the adventurous type.
The most useable benefit of all, though, is mass access to levels of performance previously available only to the rich. So, I guess I shouldn't be complaining.
This whirlwind of confusion was in full swing when Japan started making sports cars. I mean really making sports cars-land rockets with twin turbos, big brakes and steamroller rubber.
Thanks to Japan's willingness to shatter identity boundaries, an Ivy League education and a posh job in a soulless city office were no longer pre-requisites to back-road blasts. Everyone could experience the thrills once reserved for pompous dill-pickles named "Chaz" sporting white Topsiders and pink turtleneck sweaters draped around their shoulders.
Japan's budget ass-haulers quickly landed a following among starving gearheads everywhere, and an aftermarket that grew like bacteria in an airport bathroom. Single-turbo Supras, light and nimble RX-7's, and enormous 3000GT's scrabbled for highway dominance, their ultra-pressurized engines laying waste to any European metal in the way.
The cars were so revolutionary that they reeled in Camaro and Mustang buyers, European car lovers, the rich and the poor alike, and now they're... Well, they're extinct.
Ah, glory days.
Enter 2006. Toyota doesn't even make a sports car anymore. Nissan and Mazda have hacked the turbochargers off their current top-line offerings. The whirlwind of change doesn't always look good for performance lovers.
One thing you can get in the US these days, however, is a road-legal rally car. Since Subaru and Mitsubishi jumped into the identity puzzle, it's been possible to have around 300 bhp, all-wheel-drive, and a good-sized turbo under the hood for around $30k.
Stuff your family in the back, pack a trunk full of groceries and head to the autocross on icy roads in the middle of a blizzard. These things do it all, and they do it well.
But what about those aforementioned pioneers of Japanese performance? Well, they're more affordable than ever, and they still fill a void that has since been left empty by the island's manufacturers. Is this new generation of "have your cake and eat it too" performance really that much better than the boosted bastard children that ran the streets a decade ago? Have we come that far, or are we just spinning in circles trying to create something new?
Judging by the massive following that early-nineties Japanese metal still has today, it's worth a wonder.
For whatever rose-tinted reason, I'll never stop lusting after the aluminum flanks of an NSX or the outright thrust of a 300ZX Twin-Turbo.
Maybe I'm afraid of change or unwilling to accept the inevitable mushing of genres taking place these days. But I, for one, am itching to know if the performance envelope has been pushed that much since the early nineties.
Let's face it, good or not, it's a bizarre world when some of the fastest cars on the road wear Japanese symbols on the hood and have four doors and a family in the back.
Japan's budget ass-haulers quickly landed a following among starving gearheads everywhere