Tuesday 18 December 2018

90sHERO: The Twin Turbo Era

Fruits of an economic bubble.

Z15A/Z16A, FD3S, JCES, JZA80, JZZ30/UZZ32, NA1, CE9A/CN9A/CP9A, GC8, CZ32/GCZ32, BNR32(../BCNR33/BNR34) and the rest of the Playstation-generation dream-machines; ambitious vehicles green-lit during the spending and overconfidence at the height of Japan's late '80s economic boom.
When money met well-established manufacturers, a skilled workforce, a huge home market and similarly humongous and well-established export markets; realistic production-based motorsport regulations were the standard, and there was a worrying legitimacy in over-the-top vehicles thanks to (Japanese-fuelled) worldwide collector-car interest; all in the final throws of a decade damn-well notorious for its celebration of flash and conspicuous consumption. It was a perfect storm. An economy-anomaly that was to be a gold-wrapped gift to automotive enthusiasts of all sorts for decades to come; the source of the finest and final (for many) iterations of long-running nameplates, mixed in with countless models that would have NEVER seen the light of day otherwise.

...and not surprisingly, if you take enough shots you're bound to hit something. As such, there's a good handful of vehicles from the era that had a particularly notable worldwide impact - some more positive than the 1992- GC8 Impreza WRX's effect on ram-raid robberies, or what Nissan's 1989- Skyline GT-R unintentionally then did to Group A Touring Car Racing!
No, we're talking the improvements Honda's 1990- NSX and Toyota's 1989- Celsior/(Lexus)LS400 dragged out of the existing major players from Italy and Germany respectively; as with Mazda's revival of the traditional English sportscar with the 1989- Miata/MX-5/Roadster, it was simply revitalizing an existing concept with solid engineering and build quality; reliability and usability; forcing sleeping manufacturers the world over to lift their game.

For the enthusiast it was the engineering creativity of the late-80s aftermarket - quicker on its feet as the money appeared - maturing into a showroom reality limited only by a "gentlemen's agreement" to cap the fun at 280PS (276hp/206kW) - itself only driving that engineering creativity further to broaden powerbands and increase efficiency..

For a cashed-up population with confidence their pockets will be restocked tomorrow; 'on paper' that may've been, but they'll be spending. They NEED things to buy, and business will be there to relieve them of some of their new-found wealth. Toyota alone managed to squeeze 2.5 million new vehicles onto Japan's roads in 1990 - a significant jump from the 1.68million annual local vehicle sales only five years earlier. Let's thank that prosperity for the 1991- 2JZ-GTE's over-engineering.. or, well, the 1991- Tercel-based EL44 Paseo/Cynos' existence. Err.. you know, something for everyone!
As whether for need or greed, necessity and opportunity will always drive; opportunity here seeing designers and engineers really let loose to create that something special for everyone; outrageous concept vehicles thrown into production for a thirsty buying public. Exotic gullwing-doored economy carsSnail-inspired commercial vehiclesKei commuters sporting boosted five-valve-per-cylinder triplesAnd mid-engined onesAnd exotic-gullwing-doored-mid-engined ones. Lexus. Infiniti. Amati. The major players each loading their showrooms with Russian Doll lineups of family sedans and sportscars; every size, drivetrain layout, engine configuration and cylinder count. "A front-driving pillarless hardtop? We do already offer a rear-drive one.. and a pillared version.. but hell, Nissan/Toyota/__insert-competitive-manufacturer__'s doing it - we can't not!"

Yep, even the automotive bread-and-butter was shining.

Along with the huge step up in bodywork (..paint, rust protection..) and plastics that gave the world bullet-proof Camrys, Accords and Capellas, it was the era that Honda decided even the Civic needed double-wishbone suspension and an exotic 8000+RPM VTEC 'four; when Toyota justified chasing the same lofty 100+PS/litre-naturally-aspirated power goals for their equivalent Corolla's mill with individual throttle bodies, five valves per cylinder, variable valve timing and 8000+ RPM limiter. When Mitsubishi figured hell, the Mirage/Lancer could use an intricate 1597cc quad-cam V6 - still the world's smallest - if only to one-up the 1845cc all-alloy equivalent Mazda had started pinning in vehicles the year earlier; BOTH manufacturers sporting full families of <2500cc quad-cam 7500+RPM screamers earmarked for a life of commuting and deferred maintenance. That'll go well.

In an era of overly ambitious technology and intricate detailing (twelve clips, two trims and a gasket which would now all be one piece..); the engineering/design costs, sheer number of unnecessarily unique parts and a market saturated with models/platforms through to every silly niche; yikes, I doubt vehicles ever 'cost' as much to build.

...which when all were largely too late to their own party, isn't ideal; the boom was a bubble, seeing these elaborate vehicles launch into an economic collapse that outlasted even the most unusually lengthy production run.
Others were simply cut short: most of the wilder stuff (like the Nissan Pike cars or Mazda's efforts to burn as much money as possible..) disappeared forever well before the decade was done; while the showroom decoration - the poster cars/drivetrains - lived on through a decade-long cheapening in the hope of a return on investment, the export-prohibitive exhange-rates and tightening economy/emissions standards removing them from the worldwide landscape one by one.. eventually Japan-only and finally stumbling into the guillotine in the early 2000s.
To make matters worse, with the international motorsports mainstream moving back away from Group A through the decade, vehicles like the Skyline GT-R, Impreza WRX, Lancer Evolution, Celica GT-Four, Pulsar GTIR and more, essentially lost their reason-to-exist; the Group N futures for the models that survived surely never justification enough for that initial green light...
Yet still, there are surprising positives here...
...where despite price rises and costs sneakily torn out at every turn, a generation of vehicles were instead given a chance to really breathe and refine through facelifts and more incremental updates. The former racer BNR32 evolved into the BCNR33 and BNR34, the S13 into S14 and S15; the SR and RB given longer lives and development than what may've originally been intended. Mitsubishi's GTO got a handful of facelifts over a full decade. As did Nissan's FairladyZ. Toyota's tardy 1993- Supra may have 'only' ended up with a 9 year run, but the Honda NSX? It charged on for a solid decade and a half..
Importantly in any case, it was their popularity locked-in as they each became the last and/or best of their kind, truly fitting replacements out of the question when they had to be cheaper to make any sense; the 3.5-4million yen twin-turbo RX-7 replaced with 2.4-2.7million yen naturally-aspirated RX-8; the 4-4.8million yen twin-turbo Z32 Fairlady Z replaced with a 3-3.8million yen naturally-aspirated Z33; leaving the now-used vehicles to pick up another generation of fans.. then another...

A sampler of some of the decade's warmer offerings. An assortment that includes everything from the absolute luxury gran-touring flagships to commuter-turned-racer homologation specials; vehicles from the height of the bubble, to their final evolutions at the tail-end of the 90s..

..as in reality, the lines between these vehicles blurred as internet/media, games and time - imaginations, imaginary bank accounts and actual depreciation - both broadened and levelled the playing field to include those decade-long spans of entire manufacturer catalogues; that 2,000,000yen Mitsubishi Lancer variation built to go rallying suddenly alongside a 9,000,000yen Honda engineered to tempt a wealthy sportscar enthusiast out of a Ferrari...

...and brand loyalists can't help but cherry-pick the fastest or flashest from their chosen manufacturer's lineup to throw into whatever the hypothetical comparison they're imagining, regardless of whether those manufacturers ever marketed those vehicles against each other, or which end of the development cycle those vehicles crossed paths. So we see a GCZ32 Fairlady Z Twin Turbo compared in a theoretical drag race against a NA1 NSX; a JZA80 Supra alongside a Skyline GT-R two generations younger in a cringeworthy shootout for affection in some Facebook meme; or racetrack comparisons that have GC8 Impreza WRX STIs and CE9A/CN9A/CP9A Lancer Evolutions running rings around their Alcyone SVX and Z15A/Z16A GTO stablemates. It paints a messy picture as to where these vehicles really sat in relation to one another...

So for the sake of "while we're on the subject..", let's give it a whirl.

The most sporting of each manufacturer's offerings, smack-bang in the middle of the decade; "A price-list of vehicular unnecessity, Japan 1994/1995":

2,228,000 DC2 Honda Integra Type R 200PS B18C I4 5MT
2,493,000 BB1 Honda Prelude Si VTEC 200PS H22A I4 5MT
2,980,000 KA8 Honda Legend Coupe 215PS C32A V6 4AT
4,374,000 KA8 Honda Legend Coupe Alpha Touring 235PS C32A V6 4AT
8,307,000 NA1 Honda NSX (standard roof) 280PS C30A V6 5MT
2,043,000 BG8Z Mazda Familia GT-X 180PS BPT I4T 5MT
2,480,000 BG8Z Mazda Familia GT-R 180PS BPT I4T 5MT
2,725,000 GE5B Mazda MX-6 2500V6 4WS 200PS KL-ZE V6 5MT
3,285,000 FD3S Efini RX-7 Type R Bathurst 255PS 13B-REW 2RotorTT 5MT
3,960,000 FD3S Efini RX-7 Type RZ 255PS 13B-REW 2RotorTT 5MT
3,490,000 JC3S Eunos Cosmo Type-SX 230PS 13B-REW 2RotorTT 4AT
3,990,000 JCES Eunos Cosmo Type-SX 280PS 20B-REW 3RotorTT 4AT
5,325,000 JCES Eunos Cosmo Type-E CCS 280PS 20B-REW 3RotorTT 4AT
2,378,000 CE9A Mitsubishi Lancer RS Evolution III 270PS 4G63T I4T 5MT
2,968,000 CE9A Mitsubishi Lancer GSR Evolution III 270PS 4G63T I4T 5MT
2,287,000 DE3A Mitsubishi FTO GPX 200PS 6A12 V6 5MT
3,603,000 Z16A Mitsubishi GTO 225PS 6G72 V6 5MT
3,980,000 Z15A Mitsubishi GTO Twin Turbo MR 280PS 6G72 V6TT 6MT
4,315,000 Z16A Mitsubishi GTO Twin Turbo 280PS 6G72 V6TT 6MT
2,190,000 RNN14 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R Base 230PS SR20DET I4T 5MT
2,341,000 RNN14 Nissan Pulsar GTI-R 230PS SR20DET I4T 5MT
2,136,000 RPS13 Nissan 180SX Type-R 205PS SR20DET I4T 5MT
2,549,000 KRPS13 Nissan 180SX Type-X HICAS 205PS SR20DET I4T 5MT
2,426,000 S14 Nissan Silvia K's 220PS SR20DET I4T 5MT
2,689,000 S14 Nissan Silvia K's Aero HICAS 220PS SR20DET I4T 5MT
2,798,000 ECR33 Nissan Skyline GTS25T 250PS RB25DET I6T 5MT
4,545,000 BNR32 Nissan Skyline GT-R 280PS RB26DETT I6TT 5MT
5,290,000 BNR32 Nissan Skyline GT-R V-Spec II 280PS RB26DETT I6TT 5MT
4,785,000 BCNR33 Nissan Skyline GT-R 280PS RB26DETT I6TT 5MT
5,290,000 BCNR33 Nissan Skyline GT-R V-Spec 280PS RB26DETT I6TT 5MT
3,050,000 Z32 Nissan Fairlady Z Version S 230PS VG30DE V6 5MT
4,080,000 CZ32 Nissan Fairlady Z Version S Twin Turbo 280PS VG30DETT V6TT 5MT
4,560,000 GCZ32 Nissan Fairlady Z Twin Turbo 280PS VG30DETT V6TT 5MT
2,590,000 SW20 Toyota MR2 GT-S (standard roof) 245PS 3S-GTE I4T 5MT
2,829,000 SW20 Toyota MR2 GT (standard roof) 245PS 3S-GTE I4T 5MT
3,148,000 ST205 Toyota Celica GT-Four 255PS 3S-GTE I4T 5MT
3,045,000 JZZ30 Toyota Soarer GT 225PS 2JZ-GE I6 4AT
3,319,000 JZZ30 Toyota Soarer GT-T 280PS 1JZ-GTE I6TT 5MT
3,903,000 JZZ30 Toyota Soarer GT-T L 280PS 1JZ-GTE I6TT 5MT
7,676,000 UZZ32 Toyota Soarer 4.0GT-L 265PS 1UZ-FE V8 4AT
3,150,000 JZA80 Toyota Supra SZ-R 225PS 2JZ-GE I6 5MT
3,810,000 JZA80 Toyota Supra RZ-S 280PS 2JZ-GTE I6TT 6MT
4,360,000 JZA80 Toyota Supra RZ 280PS 2JZ-GTE I6TT 6MT
2,728,000 GC8 Subaru WRX STI Version II Type RA 275PS EJ20 H4T 5MT
2,748,000 GC8 Subaru WRX STI Version II 275PS EJ20 H4T 5MT
3,166,000 CXW Subaru Alcyone SVX S4 240PS EG33 H6 4AT

Price, power-output and the availability of a manual transmission helping highlight a few clear categories there:
  1. High-performance flagships; highest outputs, manual transmissions and specific style-conscious bodies. The poster vehicles and showroom drawcards.
  2. Technical-showcase Grand Tourers. High outputs and again style-driven, but automatic transmissions and more luxuriously outfitted.
  3. Built for motorsports. High-performance variants based on commuter/family vehicles for Group A/N homologation.
  4. High-output variants of lower-tier sportscars, or low-output entry variants of the high-performance flagships above. 

That's it, and as imagined, helps illustrate why so many odd comparisons appear.
  • How those Lancer Evolutions and Impreza WRX STIs are every bit as powerful as the Twin Turbo GTO, Supra and Fairlady Z. 
  • Why the Skyline GT-R cuts the Fairlady Z's lunch, often taking its place in comparisons against the GTO and Supra.
  • How Subaru's outgunned 240PS Alcyone SVX actually finds a far better fit (in both price and performance) amongst the 225PS naturally-aspirated Soarer, 230PS twin-rotor Cosmo and 235PS Legend Coupe.
  • A reminder that you could have got both top-tier Twin Turbo Supra RZ and RX-7 Type RZ for the cost of an entry-level NSX - a vehicle absolutely in a league of its own.
  • How the Mazda/Efini RX-7 is the only vehicle popularly included in the top group to not come equipped with its manufacturer's most powerful engine; a detail that along with the power and price, begins to push the vehicle back down with the 200-280PS 2,000,000-3,000,000yen sports and racing cars (no surprise with its motorsport history) it truly is a better fit. If not for motorsport capacity/classes and a 280PS cap in its home market, would the RX7 have been given an even hotter version of the Cosmo's triple-rotor 20B?

Interestingly, for a comparison to how many of these same vehicles were positioned in the important US market (again 1995, MSRP):

$81,000 Acura NSX (sport roof) 270HP C30A V6 5MT
$48,700 Toyota Supra Turbo (standard roof) 320HP 2JZ-GTE I6TT 6MT
$43,898 Mitsubishi 3000GT VR-4 Twin Turbo 320HP 6G72 V6TT 6MT
$37,800 Mazda RX-7 255HP 13B-REW 2RotorTT 5MT
$42,579 Nissan 300ZX Turbo (T-Top) 300HP VG30DETT V6TT 5MT
$34,800 Subaru SVX LSi AWD 230HP EG33 H6 4AT
$29,238 Toyota MR2 Turbo T-Bar 200HP 3S-GTE I4T 5MT
$25,620 Honda Prelude VTEC 187HP H22A1 I4 5MT
$42,300 Lexus SC300 225HP 2JZ-GE I6 5MT
$50,100 Lexus SC400 250HP 1UZ-FE V8 4AT
$39,980 Acura Legend Coupe 230HP C32A V6 6MT
$36,785 Chevrolet Corvette (standard roof) 300HP LT1 V8 6MT
$58,600 Dodge Viper RT/10 Roasdster 400HP V10 6MT
$61,100 Porsche 911 Carrera (standard roof) 268HP M64 H6 6MT

...where to confuse people's memories of the model hierarchy further:
  • The Supra Turbo and 3000GT VR-4 have a notable increase in marketed power over the NSX and 300ZX Turbo, now a substantial 75HP and $5-10,000 premium over the Mazda RX-7.
  • A lesser-motored MR2 Turbo is not the threat to the the top-tier vehicles it is in Japan.
  • The entire lineup of similarly-threatening racers like the WRX STI, Lancer Evolution and Skyline GT-R are still nowhere to be found; while even the Celica GT-Four 'All-Trac' (although no doubt suffering the same huge power disadvantage of the MR2 Turbo) has disappeared.
  • Toyota and Honda's cheeky push up-market with the Lexus and Acura brands has put a bit of space between their SC and Legend super-coupes and Subaru's SVX.

Far stranger (particularly price-wise) is the eclectic mix we saw in Australia (again 1995, RRP):

$36,010    Mitsubishi Lancer GSR 4WD 145kW 4G93T I4T 5MT
$119,170  Mitsubishi 3000GT 210kW 6G72 V6TT 5MT
$89,410    Mazda RX-7 176kW 13B-REW 2RotorTT 5MT
$101,515  Mazda RX-7 SP 204kW 13B-REW 2RotorTT 5MT
$48,600    Toyota MR2 Bathurst T-Bar 129kW 3S-GE I4 5MT
$81,680    Toyota Celica GT4 178kW 3S-GTE I4 5MT
$44,490    Nissan 200SX Sports 147kW SR20DET I4T 5MT
$82,500    Nissan 300ZX (T-Top) 168kW VG30DE V6 5MT
$53,300    Honda Prelude VTi-R 142kW H22A1 I4 5MT
$91,350    Honda Legend (coupe) 145kW C32A V6 4AT
$206,790  Honda NSX (standard roof) 201kW C30A V6 5MT
$44,990    Subaru Impreza WRX 155kW EJ20T H4T 5MT
$82,350    Subaru SVX 4WD 169kW EG33 H6 4AT

...where interestingly:
  • There's a higher-performance 204kW (274hp) version of Mazda's RX-7 
  • There's no Supra, no Soarer/SC, and the 300ZX/FairladyZ and MR2 are naturally-aspirated only. 
  • Down on power and auto-only, the front-driving Legend Coupe is looking very pedestrian against the Subaru SVX.. that now seeming quite the sporting competitor for a NA-only 300ZX!
...but when second-hand ex-Japan Supra RZs, Twin-Turbo FairladyZs, Soarers, and Skyline GT-Rs started to flood in from the late 90s, any original comparisons were absolutely launched (no, stuffed into a cannon and fired) out the window. The GT-Four ("GT4") and NSX so few and far between on Australian roads that they're near-enough forgotten. As was the SVX, as memories and the aftermarket blurred the line between WRX and WRX STI. Mitsubishi fans turned on the expensive and complex 3000GT/GTO for the just-as-fast Lancer Evolutions, just as undeservedly Nissan fans did on the underpowered Aus-delivered 300ZXs for Skyline GTRs - so loved thanks to successful local motorsport history in the early 90s..
Eventually we're left with Skyline GT-R vs. Supra RZ vs. Mazda RX7 vs. Lancer Evolution vs. Subaru WRX(/STI)... with similarly mod-happy Silvias right on the heels of those last few. The FairladyZ and GTO Twin Turbos? Sorely under-appreciated. JCES Cosmo? RNN14 Pulsar GTIR? imported, then later forgotten. All while JZS147 Aristos and UZZ3_/JZZ30 Soarers are shamefully scrapped as fast as people can get their hands on them. Yikes...

So where to from here?

Although many of the iconic vehicles covered in the post above never quite slipped from the enthusiast's radar, they're now frighteningly blossoming into legitimate classic cars. The US market alone has a massive appetite for vehicles they were never offered new, and at the rolling 25year anniversary, they're frantically soaking up the world's remaining supply. This fresh demand and renewed interest has seen some very quickly get collector-vehicle pricetags to match; painful for the enthusiast, but regardless, their future is bright.

For interest's sake, worldwide production numbers of some of the popular chassis':

8,800        Eunos Cosmo (JC3S/JCES)
18,600      Honda/Acura NSX (NA1/NA2)
24,300      Subaru Alcyone/SVX
45,100      Toyota Supra (A80)
68,500      Mazda/efini RX-7 (FD3S)
100,000+  Mitsubishi GTO/3000GT
151,400    Toyota/Lexus Soarer/SC (Z30)
164,100    Nissan FairladyZ/300ZX (Z32)
71,700      Nissan Skyline GT-R (BNR32/BCNR33/BNR34), along with hundreds of thousands of lower-spec coupes..

Compared to vehicles of similar vintage:
12,700      Porsche 968
30,600      BMW 8-Series (E31)
60,800      Porsche 928
63,700      Porsche 911 (964)
65,300      Dodge Stealth
68,000      Porsche 911 (993)
204,900    Mercedes SL (R129)
358,100    Chevrolet Corvette (C4)

..which hopefully gives you an idea on how much competition there may or may not be for some of these platforms. While there clearly was never going to be enough first-generation NSX' to go around, and far more Skyline GT-Rs (itself a variant of a far more ubiquitous platform) than some seem to appreciate; those 150,000 *Z30 SC/Soarers will quickly slip through the cracks if we continue to scrap them at the rate we do.

Anyway, all's interesting, and a subject I can certainly ramble on about if given half a chance..!

The rest of the world eventually caught up, but for a moment there in the early 90s these were some of the best cars in the world; a result of a perfect sequence of events sadly not soon to be repeated. The impact Japanese cars of this era had the on relatively-short history of the automobile can't be overstated...