The 8 Best Japanese Performance Cars of the ’80s
The ’80s was the period where Japanese manufacturers could bring serious performance cars to the market. Let’s look at the 8 best models imported to the USA.
This was the start of the period when Japanese home market models (JDM) and those intended for the US started to diverge. With the cost of developing a motor that would meet tougher US emissions standards, many Japanese manufacturers used the same engines in several vehicles and didn’t offer some of the more interesting (like high-output turbocharged, intercooled DOHC motors) to American customers. That would change in tie, but let’s look at the best that was available in the 1980s.
Eight: Toyota Supra A60
We have a love-hate relationship with the second-generation Supra. There were many improvements over the previous generation, the biggest was dropping the solid rear axle for a fully independent setup. The styling was more aggressive, moving away from the rounded first generation body that looked like a stretched Celica to a design that was both more aggressive and more proportionate. On the other hand, to our eyes there’s still too much Celica in the styling (which the following generation would address). But despite working with a modern DOHC design Toyota had wrung only 161 hp out of the 2.8 L 5M-GE engine (which is just barely more per liter than Toyota was getting from its dated 22RE truck engine). 0-60 times were good for the era, at 8.4 seconds 0-60, but that was largely due to Toyota changing ring & pinion sizes from a freeway-cruising 3.72:1 to a more drag-strip-friendly 4.10:1. If you’re shopping, look for the P-Type (performance) versus the L-Type (luxury). You can figure out why.
Seven: Isuzu Impulse JR120/130
A car few even saw and even fewer remember. If they recall an Isuzu Impulse at all, it’s usual the later second gen FWD model that was also sold as the Geo Storm. The first generation, though was a RWD chassis wrapped in a Guigario-designed body. This first gen Impulse replaced the Isuzu 117 coupe that had been sold for 13 years. This Impulse hit the US in 1983 but didn’t really capture anyone’s attention until later in the decade. In 1985, a turbo four cylinder that produced 140 hp was added and in 1998 Lotus re-engineered the Chevette-based suspension for greatly improved handling (though there’s not much anyone could do about the solid rear axle). But despite its design pedigree, powerful (for the time) engine, and Lotus suspension, customers just weren’t heading into Isuzu dealers (if you could find one). After a few more years Isuzu gave up trying to sell cars in the US and pulled out.
Six: Mazda Miata NA
I have to believe that the vast majority of Miata haters have never driven a Miata, especially the first generation models. It’s not a 0-60 car and was never intended to be. But in 1989 when it was introduced (as a ’90 model), few cars carried as serious a set of underpinnings as the MX-5. It featured a peppy DOHC four valve per cylinder inline four (common now but still rare then) a slick gearbox out of Mazda’s big cars from Japan (further improved by a very short throw shifter), available limited slip differential, and a beam that ran down the center of the car that connected the front suspension, engine and transmission to the rear differential and rear independent suspension, making for a an incredible responsive package. As I said, this car’s not about 0-60, it’s about the huge smile on your face after you spend some quality time with it on twisty, challenging roads.
Five: Mitsubishi Starion ESI-R (TSi)
Clearly aimed directly at the Celica, the Starion offered a surprisingly attractive package for the money Mitsubishi was asking for the car. Our favorite is the 1988-1989 Starion ESI-R (and its Chrysler twin the Conquest TSI), which can be spotted across the parking lot by its box flares. But under the hood is a 188 hp 2.6 L SOHC four cylinder engine with a hemi-type combustion chamber, turbocharger with intercooler, and a slick 5-speed transmission driving back to a full-independent rear suspension comprised of semi-trailing arms and Chapman struts. Nice big fat tires filled the wheel wheel and added to the grip. Its one drawback (besides its badly dated cabin) is its propensity for eating cylinder heads.
Four: Toyota Celica GT-S RA-65
The 1983-1985 Toyota Celica GT-S was as close as you we’re going to get at the time to a two-wheel drive Group B WRC rally car. Yes, there was the Quattro, but that rolled on an much-less-fun-to-drive AWD platform (and stickered for a great deal more). With four-wheel independent suspension and wider wheels and tires, the GT-S was just plain fun. The GT-S sold in Japan carried the 3T-GTE DOHC turbocharged four cylinder, which would be modified into the 4T-GTE that the rally cars would use. Instead in the US, the Celica came with the rock-solid 22R motor. Producing just 114 hp, the 22R was limited in its ability to rev due to its long stroke (after all, it was primarily a truck engine). The good news was that torque was high for its displacement, so it felt quicker off the line than the hp rating might indicate. And where the Starion motor might be a little frail, the 22R is a rock with almost as many aftermarket go-fast parts as a small block Chevy.
Three: Mazda RX-7 FC
Like the Supra, the second generation RX-7 was a big step forward from the original. Handling was much improved, with less of the snap oversteer tendencies of the first generation Mazda RX-7. The solid rear axle was replaced with an independent rear suspension (rear axle), and rack and pinion steering replaced the less-precise recirculating ball steering of the FB. Brakes were upgraded as well with some models offering four-piston front brakes. Styling is intentionally reminiscent of the Porsche 944, as Mazda studied the US market (its largest base of RX-7 customers) to determine what customers were looking for in styling and performance. The Series 2 models of 1989 – 1991 offer the best combination of options and performance, with the normally-aspirated engine producing 160 hp and the heavier turbocharged model delivering 200 hp, which is capable of a still-respectable 6.5 second 0-60.
Two: Corolla GT-S AE86
Take one standard (but rear-wheel drive) compact coupe and add a legendary race-bred engine and you create a legend. The Corolla GT-S of 1985 – 1987 was the first real small performance car from Japan since the Datsun 510. I was lucky enough to buy a new ’85 in 1986 from a Toyota dealer who ordered the car with plans to take it rallying (it was ordered without A/C, radio or any other option; it also was ordered with an LSD). Plans changed and it sat on the lot for months as no one was interested in the a car (except me, and yes I got a great deal). The engine was incredibly responsive – it would rev almost telepathically with a touch of a throttle (like a race engine, for which the motor saw much action) and the handling nicely-balanced. And at 2200 lbs., it didn’t need much more motor. The solid rear axle did easily trigger trailing-throttle oversteer, but that’s about its only vice. The real fun was driving it in the winter (I lived in an area at the time where it snowed) with four snow tires mounted up. Every trip to the grocery store became an opportunity to drive a stage on the Swedish Winter Rally.
One: Nissan Z31 Shiro
Nissan had a problem on its hand. It had built the Z brand on the performance of the original 240Z (and its subsequent enlarged engine versions, the 260Z and 280Z). When its replacement was introduced in 1978, the original Z car fans were aghast. It had gone middle-aged: overweight and more focused on bells and whistles than on pure performance. The problem for Nissan was it sold more 280ZX than it had of the original Z-car series. With the third generation, Nissan did its best to appeal to both sides. For the masses, there was the standard version. For enthusiasts, the “Shiro” (white) edition was launched in early 1988. The electronically adjustable suspension was replaced by higher-rate springs, Koni shocks, and thicker anti-roll bars. The power leather seats were swapped for a pair of cloth Recaros, and the digital dash was replaced by a simple 150 mph speedo and a tachometer with white numbers on black faces. The only available transmission was a five-speed manual feeding a a viscous limited-slip diff. Just 1002 were sold in the US, but buyers got a car capable of 153 mph, the fastest car from Japan at the time.
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