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Does Japan make the best sports cars?

By raccars Published

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Japanese auto makers' greatest strength is arguably their sports cars, which are some of the most entertaining but affordable on the market.

Some nations are just really good at certain things: the Brazilians are good at football; the French at food; and the Americans at patriotism. It's the same with cars. The Germans are good at premium luxury; the Swedes at safety; and the Japanese are known for reliability. However they also make great little sports cars at an affordable price.

Where it all started

In 1963 Honda entered the automotive market, using the brand's motorcycle experience to achieve 80mph from its tiny, high revving engine.

The first sports car from Toyota, designed to compete with the Honda, was the Sports 800, with a removable hard top and a tiny 44 horsepower engine. However it had plenty of attitude to make up for its lack of brute force and was a very agile and entertaining drive.

Toyota was a lot more ambitious with its next project, the E-Type-esque 2000GT in 1967. It was a high performance and very sleek looking fastback which has become very collectible. It was designed in collaboration with Yamaha and even made an appearance in the James Bond film 'You Only Live Twice'. Around the same time, Mazda was experimenting with high performance Wankel rotary engines in the RX-2 and RX-3.

By the end of the Seventies, a new breed of Japanese sports car was emerging, with the larger, sleeker and more powerful Toyota Celica, and Datsun decided to continue with the sports saloon format with the Maxima. In the Eighties, Toyota turned to Ferrari for inspiration, resulting in the angular looking MR2, a coupe and spyder to inspire a mid-life crisis in the happiest middle aged executive. Honda, meanwhile, was focusing on hot versions of its mainstream line-up rather than stand-alone sports cars.

Then in 1990, the Mazda MX-5 arrived. This would go on to become the world's best-selling roadster and an icon of lightweight, affordable motoring. Its blueprint wasn't really revolutionary, following a theme used so successfully by Lotus decades previously, but what Mazda did with that idea upped the entertainment level while cutting the price.

Honda's answer to the MX-5 was larger and more brutal. The NSX used the firm's motorcycle experience again with aVTEC 3.0 litre V6 engine and distinctive, Ferrari-inspired styling. Toyota's Supra was a far curvier alternative and achingly desirable.

The millennium heralded the arrival of the Honda S2000, a lightweight sports car with low maintenance, no-fuss ownership in the style of the MX-5. At the other end of the scale was the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a boy racer's dream which would become a legend. In 2004 Mazda gave a final hurrah for rotary engines with the poorly conceived Mazda RX-8 - back seats and four doors haven't always worked well in Japanese sports cars.

The modern breed of best sports cars from Japan

The next revolution in Japanese sports power was the Nissan GT-R in 2009, an absolute beast of a car with four wheel drive and a twin turbo V8. Performance wise it was right up there with Italian supercars but accessible to the man or woman in the street.

2012 saw something interesting from Lexus, which used racetrack experience to create a run of 500 4.8 litre V10 supercars. The LFA was a glorious looking carbon fibre racer, and it cost a fortune. It was an exercise in virtuoso sports motoring but probably lost the company money. The same year Toyota and Subaru collaborated on the GT86 and BRZ, respectively. They never achieved serious commercial success but were a refreshing alternative to the German marques.

Now the world is awaiting the return of the likes of the NSX, hungry for the kind of light weight, affordable rear wheel drive entertainment that the Japanese do so well.

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