There was a time when Japan ruled the world of mid-engine performance. The time when Honda can, of all things, outperform a Ferrari at the limit. A time when Toyota was the least expensive way to get ownership of a mid-engine car. The time when even large-sized sports cars in the domestic market of the country can reach a speed of 9000 rpm.
That time has long since passed, of course. NSX still exists And the It goes too fast, but a new car can’t evoke the same kind of revolutionary fervor as the original. MR2? He died in 2006 after struggling in the dry market segment for years. And no new car under six figures in 2022 can accelerate to 9.
With the electric revolution upon us, it’s hard to expect the glory days of the Japanese mid-engine performance to return. So we thought it was a good idea to look back on the golden days by driving two of the most memorable cars from that era: the Honda NSX-R and the Autozam AZ-1.
Japan’s economic boom during the 1980s and 1990s sent the country into a buying spree, and car shoppers rushed to spend new available income to spend on a game without worrying about practicality or efficiency. This bubble era forced the country’s auto manufacturers to innovate as they tried to keep pace with the increasing market demand. Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and every small manufacturer from Subaru to Suzuki attacked everywhere they could, including mid-engine cars. As a result, they have pushed performance icon after performance icon, many of which will remain closed exclusively to the highly competitive Japanese market. Games like Gran Turismo would give the rest of the world a taste of lost greatness, although it was these same games that would make these cars a forbidden fruit, further cementing their legendary status.
For some, the red Honda badge is everything. The NSX-R is a toy car for an entire generation of car nuts. A dream, a dream that die-hard fans will have over anything else in the world, even if their only experience with it came from a video game. After a short while behind the wheel, it’s easy to see why.
The first-generation NSX set a new standard for mid-engine performance, balance and steering bliss. The NSX-R takes that one step further in mastering road driving and driver engagement. The first thing you notice is the lack of power steering, as it is on all NSXs. Even at a standstill, it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to turn the wheel, and at speed, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a better rack. It’s not quite as fast as today’s modern electric power steering systems, but the amount of travel feel in your hands controls you.
The Recaro carbon Kevlar buckets, which are there as part of a weight-saving initiative that have reduced more than 200 pounds to improve performance, offer an impressive amount of comfort thanks to generous padding and an ergonomic position. It also looks great and secures you firmly to the chassis with its high-speed bends. The compact gearshift knob that controls the five-speed gearbox looks surprisingly natural once it has actually been used; Its class is first class among the best Honda cars.
If there has to be a star on the show, it’s the mover. The naturally aspirated V-6 engine that sits behind the cabin displaces the same 3.0 liters as the standard NSX, and it comes from Honda with the same power ratings: 270 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque. But there’s no way to get it to nearly 270 horsepower. There’s a smooth, steady power boost that breaks out at the car’s 8000rpm redline. If we are to guess, this thing makes 50-60 horsepower more than advertised. It’s a very fast piece of machinery, even for 2022.
The engine also looks heavenly. There’s little to no sound deadening between you and the engine bay, which means plenty of traction noise as you travel across the rev range. Spend enough time behind the wheel and you’ll find yourself shifting gears whenever you can hear the engine spinning faster. It’s addictive.
Honda made only 483 copies of the NSX-R “NA1” model. According to the plaque on the door sill, the car you see here is #96. What makes it even more special is the Brooklands Green exterior color. It’s exceptionally rare on a regular NSX, so we can only imagine a few NSX-Rs sold in this shade. It’s not the color you imagine when you think of Honda’s halo car, but it’s stunning nonetheless.
The Autozam AZ-1 is on a completely different spectrum than Honda. Relatively speaking, it is not rare and does not hold nearly the same historical significance. Senna Suzuka has never been crushed in loafers driving an AZ-1. But the car is so unique and charming that we can’t help but highlight it.
The AZ-1 was originally a Suzuki project. The company was a dominant force in the small car market at the time, successfully establishing itself with dozens of smaller cars designed to comply with Japan’s Kei car regulations, which place limits on dimensions and engine size to give buyers discounts on taxes and insurance.
The AZ-1 is a good one-car explanation of how the Japanese car market derailed at the time. Kei cars were supposed to be one step away from scooters. In the bubble era, the market was very competitive, and manufacturers were willing to ask “what if we made one in a mid-engine sports car?” In the bubble age, there was a lot of money flying around, and manufacturers had the money to try this kind of niche idea.
Suzuki developed a lot of the AZ-1 but decided not to produce, which is when Mazda stepped in. It acquired the rights, concluded development with a few Miata engineers, and sold it under its Autozam sub-brand only in Japan. As such, you’ll find a mix of Suzuki and Mazda parts inside, like the inline 0.6L turbocharger—three of suzuki cappuccino And the door handles are from the original Mazda MX-5 Miata. Interestingly enough, Suzuki later realized the error of its ways and actually sold a handful of refurbished AZ-1s as the Suzuki Cara.
Built to match the dimensions of a Japanese Kei car, the AZ-1 is incredibly small. Much smaller even than the original Miata. Think of the Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite’s tiny levels, save for the supercar proportions and weird ’90s styling. The two large headlights stare straight into your soul, while the real seagull wing doors provide just enough excitement on their own to entice the audience. It’s amazing how specialty can fit into such a compact package.
The AZ-1 looks like a supercar, too. Like any weird mid ’90s engine It is pressure tight in the cabin, without much room for your legs once you get in. The HVAC controls are mounted vertically in favor of the dashboard space, and the only things that separate you from the passenger are the transmission and the handbrake. There is a great view of the aquarium from the driver’s seat, with glass almost everywhere you look, including the roof panels.
The steering is one of the quickest and most direct I’ve ever felt in a car on the road, and I make sure to steer the nose with just a hint of steering input. Like the NSX, there’s no power assist here, but since everything is so light you won’t really notice. Nothing dulls any sense of dock, resulting in a ton of information reaching your fingertips. The suspension is on the stiffer side as well, which means plenty of agility despite the very narrow 155-section tires. For inexperienced drivers, it may seem a bit reckless, but enthusiasts who have enough time to seat under their belts will appreciate Autozam’s willingness to change direction.
The Suzuki Turbo 3 is as small as a road car engine, but thanks to the turbo, there is still enough low end to make the car feel fast at lower speeds. You don’t have to hit the 9,000 rpm range to get back into the fixed back bucket. But given how amazing the place is out there, we wouldn’t blame you if you did. Don’t let that 64-horsepower rating fool you, this thing feels fast enough to keep up with the heavy hitters of your average backyard.
Since the AZ-1 uses cables to power its transmission forks, the action from the grip isn’t quite as great as on the NA Miata’s older sibling. But it is still well built. It reminds me of old Porsche air-cooled inverters. Except when you hit the handle in your knee every time you go for fifth.
These two cars represented the best that Japan had to offer the mid-engine segment at the time. They are a product of their environment. Trivial machines were produced only because of the surrounding conditions. It was these conditions that allowed manufacturers to explore and push boundaries, creating some of the most fun and interesting cars and, in the case of the AZ-1, the strangest mid-engine cars on the planet.
It is clear at this point that the term “medium motor” will begin to fade into history as the electric revolution continues. But cars like the NSX-R and AZ-1 are a stark reminder of how Japan turned the fuse in the ’90s to create some of the best medium-driving sports cars the world has ever known. Japan’s offerings were not only better to drive than their European counterparts at the time, but were also cheaper and more reliable, allowing a larger group of people – at least in Japan – to experience the fun that came with a mid-drive experience. They changed the landscape forever, forcing the rest of the world to catch up. Mid-engine cars have definitely gotten faster since these two were built, but we’re not sure they’ve ever improved.
If you have enough money and flair you can experience this greatness too, because these cars are coming For sale as part of the JDM Collection transplantIt will appear in a trailer soon. If you value the mid-engine experience, you won’t miss this opportunity.
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