Remember the early 1990s, when each Japanese manufacturer had at least one pants-tenting sports car? Top-spec world-beaters loaded to the gills with high-tech goodness, like active aero, all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering and piston-less engines. That magnificent time in automotive history when you couldn't be considered a real sports car unless you had at least one turbocharger. That is, except for Honda, who could get away with an all-aluminum, mid-engine Ferrari-slayer powered by something called VTEC.
Ahh, those were the days. Think of the options if you had some scratch: RX-7, Supra, 300ZX , NSX, 3000GT. Those with less cash didn't fare too badly, either. The Eclipse GSX and 240SX were true sports car alternatives, as was the venerable Integra Type R.
And then it all started to go sour. First the RX-7 left in 1995, a victim of grenading drivetrain warranty claims. A year later, the Z32 300ZX followed suit. For a couple of years, the market stabilized, but the blood was in the water. Front- and all-wheel-drive performers like the Integra and Eclipse were still selling strong, even in the face of a rising tide of SUVs, but as 1999 came to a close, so did the story of the 3000GT and Supra. The very last to go was the NSX, which soldiered on until 2005. And by that point, things were already grim for enthusiasts of high-tech sports cars.
Sure, there were bright spots in the interim. Subaru's decision to bring the WRX to the US ranks as the brightest, since along with it came the STI and, finally, the Lancer Evolution. The return of the Z slaked part of the thirst for a true sports car, but not all of it. If Nissan could bring back a more modest Fairlady, what about the others? And would we ever see a return of those glory days, when every Japanese supercar was stuffed with bleeding-edge technology and two turbos?
The answer is yes. God, yes.
Think about it. Within six months, 10th-generation Lancer Evolutions will be roaming the streets of major metropolitan areas. And that's just an appetizer. A year later, the GT-R begins its assault on this country. In two years, the odds are good that we'll see the production version of Toyota's Supra successor (though whether it's branded as a Lexus remains to be seen).
SEMA 2010 has me so excited, I've already booked a room at Steve Wynn's next Vegas resort-and he hasn't even broken ground on it yet.
On the affordable, realistic front, rumors persist of a WRX-fighter from Mitsubishi that's more Evo than Lancer, with a turbo engine and all-wheel drive. And then there's the biggest potential game changer-Hyundai.
Yep. I said Hyundai. Laugh if you want, but the big dogs in Japan and Detroit certainly aren't. In the last 10 years, Hyundai has brought its quality levels past Mercedes-Benz and BMW, and now regularly challenges Honda and Toyota. The company is pairing its cutting-edge production methods and keen understanding of electronics with sharp designers from Italy and Germany to create more than just Accord and Highlander fighters. If the recent spy shots of the upcoming Tiburon replacement are any indication, it looks like it's doing it the right way.
The one thing missing from this resurgence of high performance is an affordable true sports car. By affordable, I mean under or at least near the $20,000 mark, and by sports, I mean rear-wheel drive.
Roadsters like the Sky, Solstice and MX-5 are nice, but they don't count: not everyone likes having to drop in a rollbar and slap on a fiberglass top just to pass tech at the local track day. They also lack the size and power to be the daily driven track assassin we all covet. I'm talking about a lightweight, four-seat coupe with rear wheels driven by a four-cylinder engine that's ready for boost. I'm talking about the return of something like the hachi-roku.
Toyota had a shot at it but passed. At the launch of the Scion brand, back when Scion was just the xA and xB, Jim Farley, the head of Scion at the time, asked me what I thought the third car should be. I gave it to him straight-make that next Scion the second coming of the AE86 Corolla and you will establish Scion as a sporting brand not to be taken lightly. I tried to sell him on the core audience he'd attract, not just young hipsters and hip youngsters, but serious enthusiasts, young and old, who'd be drawn to the car not for its marketing buzz, but for the high-pitched wail it made while rocketing sideways down the canyons. Perhaps I oversold it, because we got the tC instead.
Nissan passed on it too. No word on a 240SX replacement since that Urge concept a couple of years back, but it's depressing fun to think of what could have been with the Altima Coupe. Imagine if that slick-looker was rear-wheel-drive and powered by a four-cylinder for around $23,000. I can tell you that Nissan product planners already imagined that scenario-and it resulted in massive cannibalization of 350Z and G37 sales.
But there is hope with Hyundai. It's already committed to building a rear-wheel-drive sports coupe from its new Genesis luxury-sedan platform. And should it thread the needle to bring to market a Tiburon that hits the rest of the trifecta (rear-wheel-drive, affordable, turbo four-cylinder), I know where I'll be spending my money.
If not, I'll just save my pennies for a GT-R and keep dreaming about the good ol' days ahead.