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  • For Americans who lived through them, the 1990s bring back memories of,

  • among other things, Bill Clinton, the young Internet, certain memorable

  • sitcoms and an eclectic music scene.

  • But for countless auto enthusiasts, the 1990s bring back memories of

  • another sort the golden age of Japanese sports cars, the Toyota Supra,

  • Acura NSX, Mazda RX-7, Nissan 300ZX, Mitsubishi 3000GT, Mazda Miata

  • and others were all high performance and in some cases relatively low cost

  • vehicles. That inspired a generation of racers and tuners and made their

  • way into massive film and video game franchises.

  • Now, in 2020, trucks and SUVs all but rule America.

  • But Japanese automakers are not giving up on these small, agile sports

  • cars. Some have been there all along and others are making a comeback.

  • But why do this now when some automakers are determining that cars are less

  • profitable and tougher to sell?

  • Are the new Japanese sports cars living up to the legacies of the old?

  • And will they stick around?

  • When Japanese automakers first began importing vehicles into the U.S.

  • in the 1950s, the cars they sold were mostly conservative and affordable.

  • There were even a few stumbling blocks for these importers, including a

  • skeptical American public and a lack of knowledge about the American

  • market. But over time, they improved.

  • In 1973, Toyota set up a design studio in the U.S.

  • to help executives in Japan understand a market so different from their

  • own. Japanese companies also made major innovations in manufacturing that

  • yielded low production costs and strong, consistent product quality.

  • They focused especially on reliability and earned a reputation for making

  • cars that were far more dependable than those made in Europe and the U.S.

  • But they weren't content with this reputation.

  • Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Toyota also became forces in racing throughout

  • the 20th century in the hope of proving to the world that Japanese

  • engineers could also hold their own on the track.

  • And that's one of the things that we've learned just got the research

  • recently, is that consumers associate Toyota with QDR quality, durability

  • and reliability. Toyota became the first Japanese automaker to win the GTO

  • class in the International Motorsport Association GT series in 1987.

  • Actor Paul Newman raced Datsun's and Nissan's in the 1970s and 1980s,

  • winning several races during that time, including two SCCA won

  • championships in 1985 and 1986.

  • The second of the two was Nissan's fiftieth national championship.

  • The Mazda RX-7 won several IMSA races in the 1980s, winning over 100 races

  • by 1990 and becoming at that point the most successful car in IMSA

  • history. Japanese automakers were already trying to lure American

  • performance enthusiasts at least as early as the late 1960s.

  • And early example that garnered a lot of attention in America was the

  • Datsun 240Z.

  • The 240Z was the car that got Americans thinking, well, wait a minute,

  • maybe Japanese cars are not just about inexpensive economy cars that I

  • commute to work. And that 240z popularity convinced Japanese makers that

  • performance cars were worth the effort in the U.S.

  • At first, these efforts were incremental.

  • Some of the names that became iconic began as variants of other cars.

  • For example, the Toyota Supra began as a variant of the Toyota Celica.

  • I love the idea that the Evo still looks like a Lancer or I love the idea

  • that the WRX still looks like a Subaru Impreza.

  • Like that's cool. And Americans thought that was cool, too.

  • And so they kind of took their formula and said, well, we can do it a

  • different way. The vehicles were also different from American sports cars,

  • which tended to be larger and stocked with eight cylinder engines.

  • Japanese sports cars were compact light and had smaller engines, often

  • using turbocharging to ramp up horsepower.

  • They took advantage of technological developments such as electronic

  • engine controls. The Mitsubishi 3000, for example, had a very

  • sophisticated all wheel drive system for its time.

  • They were also cars that took risks and did things differently from each

  • other and from other competitors.

  • Mazda, in addition to the Miata, they had the RX-7.

  • It was powered by a local rotary engine, which was unique in the industry.

  • Nobody else but Mazda was building Wankel by that time.

  • You know, there were some German vehicles in the 1960s that had wankel's,

  • but nobody else is doing it at that point.

  • Mitsubishi went for all in on technology to try and use technology to make

  • the cars fast as it possibly could be.

  • Toyota with the MR-2, they decided to make a lightweight mid-engine sports

  • car. You know, again, something quite different from what its competitors

  • were doing. So there were different approaches.

  • You know, it wasn't all variations on the same formula.

  • And while they were not exactly cheap, some of them could be had for less

  • money than cars with European pedigrees.

  • Notable cars from the era included the Mazda RX-7, the Toyota Supra, the

  • Mitsubishi 3000, especially the V.R.

  • for version and the Nissan 300ZX.

  • On the less expensive end, there were cars like the Subaru WRX and Mazda

  • Miata. Honda even tried its hand at making a supercar, which in the U.S.

  • was called the Acura NSX.

  • It started at just above $60,000 in 1991, equivalent to about $150,000 in

  • 2021 terms. Despite some criticisms, the ambitious vehicle impressed the

  • auto world and was significantly less expensive than many high end exotics

  • from European makers.

  • What made these cars different is that it was really the first time that

  • you see a lot of really high performance bordering on high end Japanese

  • cars, because typically those cars had been about efficient performance or

  • about economy cars.

  • It was really a time when Japanese manufacturers had kind of come into

  • their own and American buyers realized those cars offer a lot of bang for

  • the buck. But over time, many of these cars and others like them

  • disappeared from product lineups in the U.S.

  • or became overshadowed by other concerns.

  • By the time it was discontinued in North America in 1998 and in Japan in

  • 2002, the Toyota Supra had become something of a Hollywood star, thanks in

  • part to the 2001 film The Fast and the Furious, where the car was driven

  • by the late actor Paul Walker.

  • The NSX ran from 1990 until his discontinuation in 2005.

  • The Mitsubishi 3000 was discontinued in the U.S.

  • at the end of 1999, and the Honda 2000 was axed in 2009.

  • A few things happened.

  • First, many carmakers began focusing more on sport utility vehicles and as

  • time went on, competition among different makers for better and better

  • cars raised sticker prices.

  • By the '93,'94 time frame, as those prices kept creeping up, the sale

  • started tapering off.

  • Finally, these cars were never meant to be massive sellers.

  • More expensive vehicles like the NSX were aimed at attracting a small

  • number of buyers in any given year.

  • A few cars held on, though.

  • The Nissan Z line left the U.S.

  • in 1997, but it returned in 2002 when the 350Z was introduced.

  • The Mazda Miata has been continuously available in the U.S.

  • Subaru also kept the tracks and are staterooms on its Impreza sedan.

  • The wagon versions were discontinued in the U.S.

  • But look at some of the examples of the companies that stuck by what they

  • do. This is who we are.

  • We're going to keep doing it.

  • And now they're reaping the rewards.

  • Apart from those that never left or left b riefly, a few made bold returns

  • to the market. The Acura NSX was brought back in 2016.

  • The new NSX bears some impressive technical innovations, including three

  • electric motors, two on the front wheels that can help steer and brake,

  • and a third that acts like an electric turbocharger.

  • In this case, we wanted to explore and experiment with things that could

  • enhance that driving experience by taking advantage of three electric

  • motors that work not only to help you accelerate, it has drive by wire

  • braking and the front motors are independent.

  • And so they can like when you row on a boat, they can be like oars and

  • support your steering and put either left or right.

  • The shape of the car is also designed to maximize cooling.

  • And Honda was especially concerned with maximizing visibility out the

  • windshield, developing new technology to meet safety regulations while

  • still giving the driver a wide view of the road.

  • On the lower end of the price range, Acura's parent

  • Honda has also kept in production some sportier versions of its mainstream

  • passenger cars, such as the Honda Civic Type R, which has been in

  • production since the late 1990s.

  • Toyota is another automaker making a big bet on sportiness.

  • CEO Akio Toyoda, who took the helm in 2009, famously ordered the company

  • to stop making boring cars.

  • That has meant a new commitment to high performance and provocative

  • design. Everything that comes through Toyota Gazoo Racing gets Akio seal

  • of approval meaning he's driven it, he's pushed the vehicle to its

  • absolute limits and he's kind of certified it.

  • I think it's kind of rare in the automotive industry to have an executive

  • or the president of a company take that type of pride of ownership and

  • responsibility for the products that he brings to market.

  • Perhaps the biggest news in recent years has been the comeback of the

  • Supra, which Toyota himself was involved in heavily test driving the

  • vehicle at the famous track inrburgring Germany.

  • Supra is a halo car and it is not meant to sell in high volumes.

  • Somewhat controversial is the fact that the car is built in partnership

  • with BMW and has a lot of BMW parts in it, including a BMW engine.

  • Despite rankling some diehards who might have preferred an all Toyota

  • product, auto analysts think partnerships like this may be the best shot

  • automakers have at building these lower volume, but attention grabbing

  • cars going forward. And Supra is attracting new attention to Toyota.

  • The folks that are coming in from Supra are a lot of them are coming out of

  • the near luxury coupe and prestige luxury cruise line up to trading in

  • other brands like Corvettes and Porsche.

  • Toyota has a sub-brand dedicated to high performance called Gazoo Racing.

  • The Gazoo racing name has been around globally since 2007, but is being

  • introduced to the U.S.

  • with the Supra. The Supra will fall under the Gazoo Racing sub-brand.

  • The Supra is joined by a recent refresh of the Nissan Z., which received a

  • great deal of coverage in the automotive press.

  • This is a positive sign for Nissan, which in 2020 was struggling

  • financially and dealing with fallout from the arrest and subsequent escape

  • of former chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn.

  • These vehicles have generated a lot of excitement.

  • If there is one gripe among some auto enthusiasts, however, it is that

  • there seems to be less of the experimentation and risk taking than there

  • was 30 or 40 years ago.

  • Maybe as they start to transition to electric or make doing hybrids in

  • these vehicles, we might see, you know, some more interest creeping up for

  • some of these new vehicles if they do something truly different.

  • Our Japanese automakers making a good choice by staying committed to sports

  • cars. The strategy has a few things in its favor.

  • First, there is big business in nostalgia.

  • Hollywood film remakes and reboots, retro fashions and music and brand

  • name revivals seem to be popping up everywhere.

  • In an era of electric cars, autonomous vehicles and all sorts of futurism,

  • companies are betting that at least some buyers want a chance to own a car

  • they once loved or never had the chance to buy.

  • American carmakers are bringing back old names like Bronco, Blazer and

  • Gladiator. It's becoming a time when people who would have remembered

  • Japanese performance cars but couldn't afford them are now coming into

  • their own. So say younger Gen Xers and maybe even millennials that have

  • fond memories of some of these odd cars from the 90s.

  • There is a way to do this right of course, by ensuring the resurrected

  • product honors its namesake.

  • If that goes wrong, it can tarnish a legacy in some circumstances.

  • You've seen that the only thing nostalgic about a car or a truck or an SUV

  • is that they brought back the name.

  • And it's really nostalgic in name only.

  • And I don't think people like that.

  • I think that it feels like to the average consumer, well, you're just

  • doing this so that all of us who are of certain age will go by it because

  • we remember them as opposed to something like the Nissan Z or the Ford

  • Mustang. Secondly, emphasizing sportiness and high performance gives

  • Japanese automakers the opportunity to carve out unique niches in a very

  • competitive marketplace.

  • Japanese cars used to stand out for their dependability, but other car

  • companies have caught up.

  • And while dependability counts in a company's favor, it might not be the

  • strongest way to lure buyers, especially those at the profitable higher

  • end of the market. I think what's happening now is a lot of Japanese

  • automakers are really coming into their own and saying, hey, let's be

  • proud of who we are and let's advertise that.

  • Let's infuse our car not with the thing that makes it American, but the

  • thing that makes it uniquely Japanese.

  • And we're going to stand on that and walk away and go, there it is.

  • That's the best we can do. Until recently, Toyota's only in-house

  • performance badge in the United States was Toyota Racing Development.

  • But TRD badges had been found mostly on trucks and SUVs.

  • With a few exceptions, the automaker surprised the world when it came out

  • with TRD versions of the Camry, midsize and Avalon full sized sedans.

  • These were cars that previously had been the embodiment of the boring

  • vehicles. Akio Toyoda wanted the company to get away from.

  • Toyota has expanded its TRD lineup among SUVs with recent examples such as

  • the TRD Rav 4.

  • A bout 70 percent of the U.S.

  • auto market is sport utilities and pickup trucks.

  • And automakers everywhere have gotten on board.

  • Many automakers, especially American ones, have dropped most sedans and

  • coops altogether. Releasing a sports car this time is likely to be

  • accompanied by modest sales expectations.

  • But that halo effect is valuable, especially for companies such as Nissan,

  • that needs to maintain confidence that it can make great products.

  • And Toyota, that needs to remind people it can be a bit dangerous.

  • They see something like performance cars as a way to get people excited

  • about the brand, even if it's not the car that they expect to sell in the

  • huge volumes. It's the one that gets people's attention about the brand.

  • And while the pendulum has swung very far in the direction of SUVs and

  • trucks in recent years, there are some who think that at least partially,