Seven Samurai: A look back at Japan’s warrior supercars

The grounds of the Imperial Palace in Toyko cover a modest three-and-a-half square kilometres in the heart of the city. At the height of the Japanese economic bubble, the property was valued greater than the entirety of all the real estate in California.

Soon, that bubble would burst, leading to a lost decade of frugality and thrift. However, while its fragile beauty shimmered in the warm summer sun, all the major automotive manufacturers of Japan prepared for war.

The result was an arms race of lightning-fast sheetmetal; the rise of the Japanese warrior-car caste. Decades later, these machines are like the masterless ronin, wandering the land seeking battle.

For a time though, they were the steely spine of an island Empire – seven samurai defending the banner of the Rising Sun.

Acura NSX

Acura NSX
Handout, Acura

The Blademaster – Acura NSX

Much of the NSX’s design came from studies of the F-16 Falcon, a single-seat fighter jet of staggering capabilities. There was also a frisson of Italian in its genesis, with an early concept designed by Pininfarina, and a stated performance target of the Ferrari 348.

While Honda owed its roots to racing, the idea that the people who built the fuel-sipping Civic could hope to take on the prancing stallion of Maranello was as ridiculous as a foot soldier facing down a cavalry charge. However, the design and engineering team forged and honed steel, aluminum, and titanium into a katana with a killing edge.

It was the first production car to have an all-aluminum monocoque body and aluminum suspension. The engine, a 3.0L V6, had the strength of titanium connecting rods and controlled its breathing with the first-ever application of VTEC. Honda’s variable-valve timing control essentially changed the camshaft profile at higher engine speeds, pairing low speed driveability with high-rpm performance. At full charge, the V6 screamed all the way up to 8000 rpm and 270 horsepower.

Next, Honda perfected the balance of their creation by working with drivers like Ayrton Senna, a master behind the wheel. Honda-built engines made Senna a Formula 1 champion, and he responded by helping their engineers imbue the NSX’s suspension with poise and delicacy.

The end result remains one of the finest machines ever produced by Honda/Acura. While the upcoming hybrid revival might post better numbers, it won’t quite match the perfection of the original.

Mazda RX-7

Mazda RX-7
Handout, Mazda

The Archer – Mazda RX-7 twin-turbo

Mazda might be famous for selling a small, nimble roadster with great success, but the true essence of Jinba Ittai – horse and archer as one – can be found here. It’s also simply beautiful.

Three generations of RX-7 blazed an enduring legend, racking up the most IMSA wins for any chassis, and turning the engineering quirkiness of the rotary engine into a strength. By the time 1991 rolled around, Mazda’s sportscar was already a hero, and the last of the breed would be the best.

The twin-rotor 13b engine was fitted with a complex sequential twin-turbocharger, pairing a small turbo for off-the-line torque with a larger turbo for higher speeds. The result was 255 hp in a car weighing about the same as a Scion FR-S.

The chassis itself was designed by an engineering team completely unrestrained by budget. The seating position is low, yet visibility is excellent, and weight distribution is a perfect 50/50 split. Driving purity was the only target here, and the beautiful balance of the RX-7 is inexpressible in mere words and numbers.

In the wrong hands, on a slippery road, it’s a complete handful. Get the road conditions right and dial up the skill level and it’s one of the best driving experiences you’ll ever have: zen and the art of archery.

Sold in Canada only from 1993-1995, RX-7s are fairly rare. They also had more than a few issues – anyone familiar with these cars will also be familiar with the phrase, “blown apex seals.” Heat management was also an issue, and any tampering with raising the boost pressure had literally explosive results. Also, sometimes they caught on fire because of fuel line issues.

Aside from minor, trifling irritations like your entire car burning to a crisp, the RX-7 is simply excellent. It may have had its problems, but an astute mechanic and a rigorous maintenance schedule can make for an amazing ownership experience. Mazda’s engineers tried to build the purest sportscar experience available. Bullseye.

Toyota Supra Twin Turbo

Toyota Supra twin-turbo
Handout, Toyota

The Brawler – Toyota Supra twin-turbo

Purity and nimbleness is all well and good, but sometimes you just need raw power. Here’s this, then, the most-powerful car to ever wear the Toyota badge.

Conceived as a grand touring version of the Celica, the Supra eventually developed its own personality, built around a lovely straight-six engine. For the 1993 model year, that straight-six was fitted with a pair of turbos, again sequential, where it made just under 280 hp. Except of course, when it didn’t.

Japan’s so-called gentleman’s agreement capped horsepower levels for regular production cars among the major manufacturers. Perhaps recognizing that Supra buyers on the other side of the Pacific Rim might not be so gentlemanly, Toyota took the gloves off its turbo-coupe and cranked the boost up to 320 hp.

As the Mark IV Supra was actually lighter and slightly smaller than its predecessor, the result was simply nuts. All of a sudden, an automaker who would eventually surge to world domination on a wave of beige Camrys and Corollas had a car that could whip a Porsche 911. Stomp the throttle and those wide, 255-series rear tires would evaporate into smoke as the Supra zipped to 100 km/h in under five seconds.

It could handle pretty well, too, but where the Supra really fixed itself in the public imagination was when the aftermarket got hold of it. The orange car seen in The Fast & The Furious – “More than you can afford, pal” – has a special place in cinematic history, but the 2JZ inline-six told its own forced induction tale. Extremely tough, it could handle huge levels of boost provided the head was bolted down securely.

800, 900, 1,000 horsepower – feed the car enough fuel and air, and it was a dragstrip legend. Currently, the fastest Supras can zip down the quarter-mile in the six- and seven-second range. They were gone pretty quickly from the Canadian market as well, with sales stopping in 1996.

Toyota has since moved any high-performance aspirations under its Lexus banner, but the new FT-1 concept might well herald a return of the Supra badge. The new car is very pretty, but it has some seriously large boots to fill.

Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4

Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4
Handout, Mitsubishi

The Heavyweight – Mitsubishi 3000GT VR4

Mitsubishi made a name for itself with the Lancer Evolution and its rally duels with the Subaru WRX. Before all that though, there was the GTO – sold in the USA as the 3000GT, and rebadged in North America as the Dodge Stealth.

If this article took place inside a Street Fighter II arcade machine, this car would play the part of E. Honda, the sumo wrestler with the highly irritating “hundred hand slap.” With a curb weight of nearly 1900 kg in the rare folding-hardtop version, the 3000GT was a twin-turbocharged smiling Buddha.

Actually, it was more than just twin-turbochargers; the VR4 had twin everything. Each bank of the 3.0L V6 had its own turbocharger and intercooler, all four wheels were driven, and some models had four-wheel steering.

Because of all the weight, the 3000GT never had the handling prowess that would make its compatriots into legends. It did however, have an ace up its chubby sleeve – 325 hp and all-wheel-drive. While it couldn’t run door-to-door with a Supra at the dragstrip if the tarmac was dry, it would keep up if it was raining. Or snowing.

Even today, and particularly in the guise of the Dodge Stealth, the 3000GT is capable of off-the-line acceleration that’d have drivers of fancier machinery wondering, “What the heck was that thing?”

Toyota MR2 Turbo

Toyota MR2 Turbo
Handout, Toyota

The Short-Sword Expert – Toyota MR2 Turbo

Samurai famously carry two swords: the katana wielded by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and the wakizashi, used occasionally in close-quarters combat. The compact MR2 is the latter of these two blades.

Its name has a simple derivation, taken from its Mid-engined, Rear-wheel-drive, 2-seater configuration. The 1980s version, which looks like something you might use to wedge a door open, owed much of its charm to light weight and an available peppy supercharged engine.

The second-generation car was introduced in 1989 and reached North America late at the beginning of the 1990s. If you squinted, it looked a bit like a baby Ferrari, and with 200 hp on tap from a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder, it went like one too.

Because the MR2 had such a short wheelbase, the handling was a bit tricky, with a tendency to snap to oversteer if a driver got on the throttle too early coming out of a corner, or went in too hot and jammed on the brakes. A later revision by Toyota fixed the problem, adjusting the suspension and staggering the tire widths – however, this slightly reduced the sharpness of the drive.

While there was a third generation (not for Canada, sadly), the MR2 Turbo was a high-water mark for affordable, compact mid-engined performance. These days, there’s really nothing else out there apart from the Lotus Elise and Exige – both of which are powered by Toyota engines.

Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo

Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo
Handout, Nissan

Defender of the Bloodline – Nissan 300ZX twin-turbo

By 1989, the Nissan Z-car had ballooned from serious sportscar to a luxurious Grand Tourer. And not in a good way.

Happily, the end of the eighties also saw the beginning of the nineties with the introduction of one of the most timeless designs ever fitted with wheels. The 300ZX twin-turbo re-established the letter Z with a flourish worthy of Zorro, scorching the tarmac with a very apt 300 horsepower.

In an era where Corvettes came with 250 hp V8s (the ZR-1 wasn’t yet on the scene), Nissan’s Z redefined high-speed performance. It was also relatively luxurious and well built, and when compared to something like the spartan RX-7, it was practically Versailles-on-wheels.

Nissan fitted the 300ZX with a four-wheel-steering system called Super HICAS. Despite a reasonably heavy curb weight with all the technology on-board, the ZX was thus as nimble as it was quick. Pop off the removable T-tops and revel in blasting down your favourite twisty road.

It wasn’t quite enough to save the Z badge from being discontinued for several years, but the performance benchmark it made ensured that the legend would continue.

Nissan Skyline GT-R

Nissan Skyline GT-R
Handout, Nissan

The Strategist – Nissan Skyline GT-R

Never officially sold in Canada, the GT-R nonetheless picked up a cult following thanks to video games like Gran Turismo. By the time grey market rules opened up the borders, enthusiasts flocked to import the cars they had dreamed of owning.

Very early examples trace their lineage to the Prince company, a small manufacturer absorbed by Datsun-Nissan in the 1960s. Early GT-Rs had small, revvy inline-six engines, and were little-known outside Japan.

“Godzilla” changed all that. The R32-chassis Skyline of 1989 relaunched the GT-R badge with ATTESA all-wheel-drive, a twin-turbocharged 2.6L inline-six, and raw, blistering performance.

Its nickname would come as a result of motorsport dominance in Australian touring car racing. In fact, the GT-R so thoroughly crushed the competition that the Aussies changed the rules to outlaw it.

As is typical for Japanese domestic cars, all sorts of speciality variations were produced, such as the V-Spec with its uprated brakes, or the Nismo version with racecar-like aerodynamics. All GT-Rs had very stout, highly tunable engines, and all-wheel-drive to put that serious power to the ground. Even though Nissan never exported the car to North America, it’s still a badge that commands respect.

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