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Japan 1990 – the year that cars from the Land of the Rising Sun went supernova

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The 1990 Acura NSX debuts at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show. Photo courtesy Honda Motor Company, Ltd.; ad photography courtesy the author’s collection.

For decades, Japanese cars were about simple reliability and (particularly after 1973) fuel economy over style and speed. A decade after the first fuel crisis, the first Japanese car company (Honda) opened a factory on our shores, in part to get around “voluntary” import restraints. If import numbers were to be limited, then profits should not be, and so the Japanese car companies started marching upscale, with more options and higher price points. In the ’80s, the strength of Japanese cars spread out in all directions; from efficiency to luxury to sheer driving pleasure, the Japanese seemingly had a model for all seasons, all reasons, and all buyers.

Whether by some grand design or by happenstance, 1990 seemed to be the year that Japanese cars really changed things–not just in America, but worldwide. The basics–family cars like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry–occupied the sweet spot that they had for most of the ’80s. Every year brought incremental improvements, and real game-changers–a Lexus division, a Miata roadster–come along once in a while. But when a bunch of paradigm shifters hit more or less simultaneously? Japanese car companies continued not to just offer interesting, competitive products–they reset the standard, becoming the bar that others had to live up to.

Take a look at what we’ve selected below. The NSX changed the sports-car world, just as Lexus changed what luxury cars (and a dealer service department) should be. Mazda and Mitsubishi offered two different takes on affordable sports machines, and Nissan repurposed an old name toward a new end.  (And just to prove that not everyone gets it right all the time, we highlight one that should have been better from the get-go.)

Acura NSX

Acura NSX

Photo courtesy Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

Through the 1980s, sports cars were compromises: absurd money paid for handmade (and occasionally primitive) construction methods, shocking power and grip available when the fussy fuel and electrical systems allowed it to fire up, a certain finicky nature when loafing about town, and rotten ergonomics ruining the car’s awesome driving qualities. You pays your money, you takes your chances. It was part of the lifestyle then.

Then Honda launched a high-end sports car that would not accept any of those compromises, and the NSX changed the sports-car world seemingly overnight. At $60,000 in 1990, it was hardly cheap, but it was half what a new Ferrari 348 cost. Normal-sized people could fit inside and reach the controls without contorting their bodies. You could start it the first time, every time, and drive it. Its manners–tractability, ride–were impeccable, whether you were getting groceries or lapping at a track day. An aluminum-intensive structure and driveline meant that it weighed 10 percent less than that 348. (That meant its V-6 engine, which also offered 10-percent less power than the Ferrari’s V-8, pushed the NSX to equal or better the Ferrari’s on-track performance.) And thanks to Honda’s race-intensive engineering and some input from legendary F1 hotshoe Ayrton Senna, it’s one of the sweetest-driving mid-engine sports cars of this or any generation.

Mazda Miata

One of the first “nostalgic” cars offered in the U.S.–and with more than a million sold over four generations since, this back-to-basics roadster has wavered little in its mission: to restore sports-car purity to the new-car showroom. Twin-cam four-cylinder engine in front, rear tires driving, five-speed stick at hand, top goes down, styling so cute you wanted to pinch its cheeks. Your testosterone may force an eye-roll, because the car doesn’t have a ton of power, but much like the ’60s British sports cars it emulates, the Miata offered balance. (Plus, things feel faster with the top down anyway.) It’s like a Lotus Elan, minus the oil puddle in the driveway and the dodgy electrics.

Mazda’s MX-5 Miata is at the opposite end of the sports-car spectrum as the Acura NSX that came out at about the same time, but it’s on this list for most of the same reasons. And it was cheap! They were $14,000 in 1990, and clean examples cost less than half that much today. But not for long.

Lexus LS

Lexus LS

At a time when the German Deutsche Mark was out of control, and S-Class Mercedes and 7-series BMWs were $75,000+ automobiles, the idea of a $40,000 Toyota was downright shocking. The family friendly brand wanted to head upmarket, but so-so sales of more luxurious models like the Cressida led the company to think that America wasn’t ready for a big-money Toyota. So, much like Honda did with Acura, Toyota created Lexus from whole cloth, dumped all available options into models that would have otherwise stayed home (i.e., Toyota Celsior), and made a big splash. An expensive new car from an unknown brand downplaying its more pedestrian roots … it could have gone badly awry.

It didn’t, for a couple of reasons. First, the cars were excellent, with the quality feel and comfort that the target audience expected. Second, Lexus revolutionized service: The commitment to pursue perfection is more than an ad line, and customers noticed. By 1991, Lexus outsold both Mercedes and BMW to become the best-selling luxury-import brand in the U.S. Today, Lexus (the made-for-U.S. luxury brand) is now sold worldwide–including in Japan.

DiamondStar twins

Eagle Talon

Turbocharging and all-wheel-drive weren’t a new combination by 1990: Audi had been making its bones on the back of the concept for a decade with the Ur-Quattro, and other Japanese companies had built blown all-wheel-drive machines before too: Subaru’s Loyale was available as the WRX’s grandpappy, and Mazda’s 323 GTX was a slow-selling cult favorite on these shores. But they were both based on workaday cars, and didn’t capture the imagination. Neither did Toyota’s Celica All-Trac, which also harnessed all four wheels to turn the turbo boost into traction but added a sporty-looking vibe.

It was Mitsubishi that first, successfully, brought the combination to American shores. That success, we figure, comes down to a handful of factors: 1) Style: small and sporty, it looked like something that could go the way this car went. 2) Price: you couldn’t buy a U.S.-built Diamond-Star for more than about $20,000. 3) Performance–0-60 mph in 7 seconds and a 140-mph top speed, plus the grip of all-wheel-drive in corners. Whether you call it a Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX or an Eagle Talon TSi, is no matter. The underpinnings were shared and available under other models in Japan, but the Eclipse/Talon body was also a U.S. exclusive. These days, most have been run into the ground or ruined by the Fast & Furious set. Alas. By 2000, the Eclipse turned into a front-drive V-6 boulevardier, but a generation saw boosted all-wheel-drive as a way forward for high performance, judging by the Subaru WRX vs. Mitsubishi Lancer Evo wars of the new millennium.

Nissan 300ZX

Nissan 300ZX

The pocket definition of a Grand Touring car is that of a sporting car which can effortlessly devour vast distances at high speeds in supreme comfort, while possessing enough luggage space to accommodate a long weekend. It’s a nebulous area, living in the gray area between sports car, coupe, and 2+2. A GT is all of these, and none of them. Sports cars can be rough-and-tumble; proper coupes tend to possess both proper back seats (if not quite the headroom to accommodate passengers) and ample luggage space; and 2+2s just need that vestigal back seat to qualify. There are plenty of exceptions to reinforce the rule, but comfort is the key to a GT car. Comfort means more than just leather seats. It’s a suspension that absorbs, rather than transmits, road imperfections. It’s the ability to hear your stereo without straining over the engine noise. It’s an airy cabin with luxury trimmings that doesn’t crowd you.

For most of the last quarter of the 20th century, Porsche’s 928 had the market all wrapped up. But starting in 1990, Nissan’s 300ZX posed a serious challenge: offering class-leading power and performance, plus comfort and technology, for about half the money of a 928. But more than a GT that blurs the sports-car line, the 300ZX pointed the way for Japanese performance in the ’90s. Mitsubishi’s 3000GT VR4 would offer similar power (and all-wheel-drive to boot) but never quite caught on; Mazda’s RX-7 and Toyota’s Supra would later sport a pair of turbos. With the Z32-generation 300ZX, the last vestiges of its scrappy-sports-car 240Z skin had been shed. This left it in a sort of no-man’s land: not prestigious enough to be considered with the likes of the 928, and starting at $33,000 way too expensive for old Datsun-marque loyalists who stuck with the Z for two decades. Yet it remains a highlight of the era, with values that today haven’t quite caught up to the twice-blown Supras and RX-7s it competed with in showrooms.


Toyota MR2 TurboThe first Toyota MR2 redesign took a while to get here: Launched in the fall of ’89 in Japan, it didn’t come to the U.S. as a 1991 model until mid-1990. And when it arrived, it was controversial. It gained about 300 pounds over the previous generation–never a good sign for a sports car, despite the 200-hp turbocharged engine that handily accommodated the extra heft. But, it was the suspension tuning that proved such an eye-opener. While cornering hard under full boost, the rear wheels toed out, causing snap oversteer. Accelerative squat and brake dive were extreme as well. Granted, you’re rarely running 10/10ths on public roads, and most owners didn’t notice; even so, the turbo MR2 quickly gained a reputation for being a bit of a handful. A suite of changes–raising the attachment point of the rear trailing arms, lengthening the rear lateral links, plus larger brakes and 15-inch wheels and tires replacing 14s–arrived for mid-1992, curing it of its ills, but sales never really recovered.