Some of the most iconic affordable import sports cars were built by Japanese companies in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Here’s how it began, why it ended, and how it may well rise again.
During the glory days of American iron from the 1950s through the end of the 1960s, Japanese automakers in American didn’t have the marketing and dealership power to make their affordable sports cars available and well-known in the U.S. However, by the beginning of 1970, Japanese automakers were ready to show off the fun and affordable sports cars they had that could rival anything in the world. Over the next two decades, a slow arms race developed among Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Mazda, and others. The Japanese companies eventually created a “gentlemen’s agreement” of sorts to limit published hp to under 276, and to keep the cars under the level of true supercars. Heading into the 1990s, that all fell apart. The Toyota Supra and Nissan 300ZX had evolved well beyond anything offered in America at that time in terms of sophistication and real-world performance. Coupled with changes in the dollar value relative to the yen, prices had also gotten out of control. It sure was fun while it lasted. Here’s an informal look at how the Japanese automakers started and ended a golden age of affordable sports coupes in America. The good news is, Mazda, Toyota, and Subaru are again bringing it all back to the baseline.
Datsun Nissan Z
One of the most iconic Japanese sports cars of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s were the Datsun and Nissan Z cars. These cars actually had their genesis in the Datsun 1600 Fairlady roadster cars from the mid-’60s. Datsun combined the classic formula of a compact size, great handling, and a fun to drive experience that epitomizes a great sports coupe. This being the ’70s, cars like the 240Z were, of course, rear-wheel drive and most came with a manual stick shift.
The first 240Zs showed up in America late in 1969. The 240Z had a 2.4-liter, in-line six-cylinder engine with 151 hp.
Over the next quarter century, the car would eventually evolve to the mighty 300ZX turbo with power reaching 300hp, top speeds exceeding 150 MPH, and prices that in today’s dollars would equate to roughly $75,000. The fun and affordable 240Z had evolved from an entry-level runabout to a near-supercar and sales had trended toward zero.
Toyota Celica and Supra
Like Datsun/Nissan, Toyota’s affordable sports coupes also have roots going back to the 1960s. The 1967 200GT was a similar car in many ways to the Datsuns of the age and had the classic cabin rearward, front engine, rear-wheel drive layout of the cars that would do battle for customers’ dollars for the next thirty years.
The 2000GT wasn’t really affordable, though, and Toyota’s Celica GT coupe/hatchback became the everyman’s sports car in the 1970s. By the end of that decade, Toyota had followed Datsun’s lead by introducing an in-line six-cylinder engine with about 123 hp. The Celica Supra began its evolution arc from affordable sports coupe to supercar.
By the 1990s, the Supra Turbo had become one of the top-performing coupes in America.
Capable of being tuned and modified to as much as 1,000 hp, the last-generation Supra had evolved well beyond affordable, and well-beyond being a simple car for commuting and weekend fun. Although withdrawn from the U.S. market in 1998, the folks at Toyota in Japan never really stopped work on the Supra. Rather, the team continued with the car’s engine and basic design in Japanese models. Lexus brought back the Supra without telling anyone in the form of the first IS sedan in the late 1990s. Lexus stepped the performance of the IS back a bit and added a pair of doors, but prices were well into the premium levels.
The doors were later dropped on one IS trim, the IS 350C.
The IS evolution leveled off with a V8 IS F, and in 2014 Lexus brought out the RC 350 coupe, and then the V8-powered RC F. With prices now well into the $75K range, the folks at Toyota and Lexus had evolved their ’69 2000GT to its final destination. Next, the team would go to full supercar production with the LFA. Like the Nissan 300ZX, sales are again trending to zero.
Mitsubishi has always seemed to follow Toyota and Nissan, but its Starion sports coupe had a turbocharger well before the competition did. In terms of looks, it is hard not to see a lot of the Supra in the ’80s and early ’90s Starions. Still, credit Mitsubishi for offering a relatively high-volume turbocharged, rear-wheel-drive sports coupe before it was all the rage. Motorweek called the Starion’s first engine “Superb,” and said it offered more car for the Yen than the Toyota Supra or Nissan Z. The 3000GT came late in the import sports coupe era and landed smack dab in the middle of the end of the arms race when prices were already spiraling out of control. Mitsubishi may have been the first to see the demise of these affordable sports cars. Rather than quit on the segment, Mitsubishi adapted and launched the front-drive platform Eclipse. Partnering with Chrysler to co-market the car as the Talon and Laser helped boost sales and spread costs.
Mazda RX-7 Mazda Miata
Mazda had its own version of the Datsun Z and Toyota Supra called the RX-7. From 1978 through 2002, the RX line started as a fun and affordable coupe, and ended as a very high-performance, and pricey premium GT car. Power started around 100 hp and ended up over 250 hp by the time the car entered the end of production. Mazda’s RX was innovative in many ways, most notably since it used a Wankel-style rotary engine.
Honda didn’t have a rear-wheel drive platform to work with, nor did it have an in-line six-cylinder engine like Toyota and Nissan, but it did have a winner in the Accord sedan. From that platform, Honda built a sporty coupe that was in many ways indicative of Honda’s go-it-alone philosophy on so many things automotive. The Prelude may be thought of as a pretender by some, but it was fun to drive, a coupe, and costs were kept manageable well into its 1990s models. With all-wheel steering and a standard moonroof, the Prelude had some features other sporty cars would not have for many years.
Although Subaru missed much of the early import sports coupe era, it made up for it at the end with a unique, and ultra-modern design. The 1992- 1997 SVX coupe arrived with 232 hp from a boxer-six-cylinder engine. Everything from the dash to the side glass was designed to be the most modern in the segment. It also featured optional all-wheel drive, something most Japanese sports cars would not have for another decade. The SVX was hard to call a commercial success, but credit Subaru for making a run at the late-era import sports coupe market.
The 1990s Mazda Miata was not a sports coupe, but a roadster. It didn’t really follow the Nissan Z and Supra, it followed classic British roadster design. However, it also offered fun at an affordable price, something that the early Japanese sports coupes were all about. The Miata brought driving fun back to the masses the same way that early 240Zs and Celicas did. Mazda has been evolving the Miata since 1990, but look closely and you will see that although the car is now much faster, with the current generation getting to 60 MPH in roughly the same time as the original NSX supercar, it is being kept affordable, and Mazda dropped the hp by nearly 10% in the newest iteration. Mazda has seen the results of unbridled power and cost and isn’t planning to evolve the Miata out of existence.
Toyota FR-S, Subaru BRZ
Toyota partnered with Subaru to go back to the future with the Toyota FR-S (now called the 86) and Subaru BRZ. These new sports coupes came to market fun and affordable and are very close to the size of early Datsun 240Z, RX-7, and Celica cars. Since the introduction of the twins, automotive journalists and fans have been screaming for Toyota and Subaru to up the power and torque of these gems. Yet, both have resisted. If you’ve ever wondered why both have held the car back, now you know.