Yeah, we’re spoiled.
During the 1990s, North Americans could buy a lot of impressive machinery. Dodge Vipers, BMW 850is and Toyota Supras were available for mass consumption. But even with our mitts full of high-performance vehicles, we still wanted more.
We wanted what Japan was getting. It was the tail end of an economic boom and the Japanese automotive industry was pumping out an endless stream of high performance, specialized automobiles. A few of these made their way to our shores, like the Toyota Supra, Acura NSX and Mazda RX-7. But many more never made the journey across the Pacific and we were worse off for it. If only we could change history, here are 10 Japanese cars, in no particular order, we wish we could have bought.
1996 Mitsubishi Legnum VR-4
The Mitsubishi Galant that was sold in Japan may have looked similar to the one available in North America, but under the skin, it was actually very different. With a large variety of engines and drivetrains, it was the VR-4 that really sent our hearts racing.
Fitted with a 2.5-liter turbocharged V6 engine, the VR-4 made 276 hp and 271 lb-ft. of torque. It sent power to all four wheels through a five-speed manual transmission or optional five-speed semi-automatic. The VR-4 could even be had with active yaw control, borrowed from the Lancer Evolution.
Best of all, the Galant wagon, known as the Legnum, could also be had with all these goodies.
In Japan, there is a special city car category of automobiles called Kei cars that are exempt from certain tax and insurance regulations. Designed to be affordable commuter cars, some manufacturers took the Kei car specifications and made serious sports cars.
The Mazda Autozam AZ-1 was one of those vehicles. Powered by a class-regulated 657-cc three-cylinder engine, the tiny turbocharged powerplant produced 63 hp and 63 lb-ft of torque. This may not sound like much, but the AZ-1 was only 129.7 inches long and weighed a mere 1,587 lbs.
SEE ALSO: Top Japanese Sports Cars from the 1990s
The engine was also placed mid-ship behind the driver, powering the rear wheels. For anyone who wanted an NSX, but couldn’t afford one, the AZ-1 offered a 4/5 scale model alternative.
Imagine for a second what would have happened if if we got the Chaser instead of the Camry in North America. Measuring roughly the same size, the Chaser was a mid-size sedan that strayed from convention at the time by sending power to the rear wheels.
Available in many different configurations, the Chaser Tourer V was the top dog of the lineup. Featuring a turbocharged 1JZ-GTE 2.5-liter V6, the Tourer made 276 hp – a number no Japanese auto-manufacturer would exceed at that time thanks to a gentleman’s agreement. A five-speed manual transmission could be equipped, further emphasizing this sedan’s sporty nature.
North America did receive the Nissan 240SX during the 1990s, but if you knew what was lurking across the ocean, you were disheartened. Called the Silvia in Japan, the compact rear-wheel-drive coupe was offered with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that significantly increased performance.
In 1999, the ‘S15’ generation of the Silvia was introduced with Spec-R models boasting 250 hp from the turbocharged engine. Weighing well under 3,000 lbs for regular coupe models, the Silvia was a favorite budget performance vehicle. And if you wanted a little more, there was the Aero package that added, you guessed it, aerodynamic bits and pieces.
The EK Type R Civic may well be the best Civic ever made. The three-door hatchback came with a frantic B16B 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that put out an impressive 182 hp thanks in part to an 8,500 rpm redline.
With a curb weight around 2,400 lbs, the Type R was light. It also included all the proper go-fast goodies like a limited-slip differential, re-enforced body structure, Recaro bucket seats and even a Momo steering wheel. For those who wanted to take the Civic Type R to the next level, air conditioning, power windows, power steering and the radio could all be deleted when ordering the car for further weight savings.
1998 Nissan Stagea Autech 260RS
Imagine taking the mechanics of a Dodge Viper and putting a wagon body over them. That’s basically equivalent to what Nissan did with the Stagea Autech 260RS. Essentially a Nisan Skyline wagon, the Stagea came with either rear- or all-wheel drive and a whole lot more.
Just like the Skyline GT-R, the top-of-the-line Stagea included the legendary 2.6-liter turbocharged six-cylinder engine that produced a highly underrated 276 hp. A manual, all-wheel-drive, turbocharged super-wagon sounds like the stuff enthusiast dreams are made of – too bad we never got it over here.
Long before the EVO ever made landfall in North America, it was ripping up the mountain passes of Japan for years. First introduced in 1992, the compact super-sedan made around 245 hp from a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine.
Immediately used for rally racing, the Evolution would evolve throughout the 1990s to include more power and better performance. By 1999, the Lancer Evolution was on its sixth iteration and better than ever. It was highlighted by special Tommi Mäkinen edition that upgrade performance parts inside and out, making the EVO ever faster.
Right around the time the Lancer Evolution showed up, so did its arch nemesis, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI. Using the same WRC-mandated formula, the WRX STI featured a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine powering all four wheels through a manual transmission.
Like the Lancer Evolution, the WRX STI continued to improve throughout the decade. But the ultimate 1990s WRX STI is easily the 1998 22B STI. With wider body work, an adjustable rear wing as well as a unique hood and bumper, the 22B is instantly recognizable as a special STI. Basically, every mechanical component received a significant upgrade including the engine, which was punched out to 2.2 liters in displacement, increasing power to 280 hp.
Very few of these cars were ever produced and, sadly, even fewer are still around today.
We may have received the NSX in North America, but Honda saved the ultimate version for Japan only. Called the Type-R, it was the highest performance NSX of the 1990s, thanks to extensive weight reduction that dropped the NSX’s curb weight from nearly 3,000 lbs. to just a hair over 2,700 lbs.
This was achieved by removing anything that didn’t aid in performance like the radio, speakers, spare tire, air conditioning and various sound deadening materials. To further enhance its track capabilities, the suspension was upgraded and lighter wheels were installed. A short gear ratio was installed for better acceleration and Recaro seats were installed for lighter weight and better support. And as a final touch, every one of the 3.0-liter V6 engines used in the Type-R were put through the same mechanical scrutiny as Honda’s racing engines.
Man, did we ever miss out with this one. The Nissan Skyline GT-R may well have been the best “everyday” performance vehicle of the 1990s, and we never got the chance to drive one – new anyway. The decade would see three different generations of the GT-R come along, each earning a legion of loyal fans.
For the most part, all Skyline GT-Rs were powered by the RB26DETT 2.6-liter turbocharged six-cylinder engine that produced a lot more than the official 276 hp ratings would have us believe. With a killer all-wheel-drive system and track-ready suspension, the GT-R couldn’t be touched by many cars during its time. And, the GT-R was highly tunable.
For those who wanted a little more factory-backed performance, there was the 1997 NISMO 400R that featured a plethora of performance upgrades, highlighted by an increased six-cylinder engine that pumped out a staggering 400 hp.
Why did Japan get to have all these amazing cars?!