Monday, September 10, 2012

Cars of the Moment: The Japanese Supercar Edition

Japan's automotive industry is generally known for sensible family transportation. Here in the US, Honda is known for the Accord, Toyota is known for the Corolla and Nissan is known for the Altima, all of which are generally designed to get you, your passengers and your stuff from point A to point B cheaply, reliably and in relative comfort.

There have been outliers, to be sure. Honda used to make the Prelude, a fun little coupe built from spare Accord and Civic parts. Toyota had the Celica, MR-2 and Supra sports coupes for a long time before relegating them to history due to low demand. And Nissan still makes the fun-to-drive Z sports car and roadster.  Even so, ask someone to name a Japanese sports car and they'll likely be hard pressed to come up with something.

And that is a travesty, because to those who know, Japan has consistently been producing some of the finest supercars the world has ever known. They are few and far between, but they are almost always great.

Let's start with today, then look to yesterday before moving on to tomorrow, shall we?

The Lexus LF-A is the product of 10 years of research, development and testing. Test mules, the mocked-up and cobbled-together vehicles automakers use to try out different engine and suspension settings, have been rounding Germany's Nurburgring since 2003. Design concepts have been teased at major auto shows since 2005. Finally, after four different designs and hundreds of gigantic conceptual changes, the LF-A was released to the public in 2011, with only 500 models available worldwide and a strict buyer selection process that would prevent owners from flipping their rare cars for more money in the used marketplace. 

I'd think that for each of those lucky customers, the wait was worth it. 

Now, my distaste for Lexus and Toyota in general is well-documented, but this car breaks with tradition, both in general and for me specifically. Look at the thing. Even (or perhaps especially) painted fly yellow, it looks aggressive and modern. The scoops in front of the rear wheels, the blade-like radiator vents protruding from the rear window, the bonkers-sexy interior: from stem to stern, this car's intentions are clear.

But if you're still not convinced, turn the key and listen to one of the fastest-revving V10 engines in history. Taking from Toyota's extensive experience as a manufacturer for Formula 1 racing, the engine is ultralight and mounted so low in the chassis that it doesn't even clear the top of the front wheels. The Lexus has a digital tachometer because, rumor has it, the engine is so quick to rev that a conventional analog gauge mechanically wouldn't be able to keep up.  

The whole car's structure takes shape with the use of carbon fiber, a lightweight and strong material that only recently has made the jump from aerospace and astronautics to automobiles. The carbon strands are woven in a gigantic industrial loom that was repurposed from one of Toyota's original fabric looms. A tiny piece of Toyota history goes into this car. With a racetrack-chic exhaust wail and a loud, backfiring crack with each banging gearchange, this car is designed to thrill and scintillate. How unlike Lexus, and how refreshing.

Nissan has been making a fantastic car for markets other than the United States called the Skyline GT-R. After a hiatus in the 1970s and 1980s, the R32 Skyline GT-R was reintroduced in 1989, featuring a technologically advanced all-wheel drive system with something they called ATTESA E-TS, that could split engine power up among the wheels. For example, more torque could be sent to the outside rear tire when the vehicle was turning a corner, giving it exceptional balance and maneuverability. Further improvements were made for the R33 Skyline and R34 Skyline, with each of them gaining notoriety from the gaming crowd for their near-dominance in the Gran Turismo video game franchise. Fans of the cars were vocal. America, known to every major automaker as the least forgiving and most fickle automobile market, was ready for Nissan's supercar.

After a few tantalizing concept cars, the production Nissan GT-R (no longer a Skyline) was unveiled for the 2008 model year. With a probably-underrated 485 horsepower coming from a twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V6 and, no hyperbole, the most technologically advanced transmission, all-wheel drive system and driver interface, that first version of the "R35" GT-R was capable of sprinting to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds, faster than the $600,000 Ferrari Enzo, never mind that the Nissan cost only about $80,000 after dealers inevitably marked it up.

Fun fact: Polyphony Digital, the developers of Gran Turusmo, was contracted to design the vehicle's driver interface, which allows drivers to change suspension and drive settings and view real-time performance stats from the navigation screen.  Fun fact II: All vehicles sold in Japan are required by law to be limited to about 88 mph and the GT-R is no exception. However, if the navigation system senses that the vehicle is on a racetrack, it automatically removes that speed governor.

Later improvements to the engine, transmission, suspension have culminated in this, the 2013 Nissan GT-R. Until the R36 generation bows in a few years, this is likely as good as any Nissan will ever be. With 545 (!) horsepower, a cataclysmic launch control system and enhanced aerodynamics, the GT-R is one of three cars than can get to 60 mph in less than three seconds. The other two? The Porsche 911 Turbo, at nearly double the cost, and the Bugatti Veyron hypercar, which starts at a jaw-dropping $1.5 million.

Not bad for a Datsun, eh?

Remember that old Honda Prelude we mentioned before? Most of them came with VTEC, an innovative variable valve timing system that allowed an engine's timing to change with revs so that it could pull strongly from both high and low RPMs. Its technology is beyond my understanding and therefore, in my mind, miraculous. I've driven a few cars with VTEC and they're all a blast.

But the system owes its very existence to Honda's original supercar, the 1990 Honda/Acura NSX. This car was revolutionary in so many ways that it's difficult to quantify. First and foremost was the VTEC system, which made its first appearance in the US market on the NSX (which was badged as an Acura here). This system gave the NSX and its 3.0-liter (later enlarged to 3.2 liters) V6 engine performance on par with the more expensive Ferrari 348 and less exotic Porsche 911 and Chevrolet Corvette. 

However, Honda's innovations did not stop there. The NSX was also the first vehicle ever to have an all-aluminum monocoque body. In layman's terms, the car's stunningly styled body and frame were one unified piece and were made out of expensive, lightweight aluminum, making the car about 500 lbs lighter than a comparable steel vehicle.

Above and beyond the exotic-for-the-time materials and interesting engine technology, compared to its rivals, the NSX was very easy to live with. It was low-slung but still had great visibility, its interior was built with Honda quality and Acura luxury, and it was reliable and predictable when driving quickly. Unlike the fragile Ferrari 348, the tail-happy Porsche 911 and the tacky, uncomfortable Corvette, the NSX was the first supercar you could reliably drive every day and still enjoy on the track each weekend, and damned if it didn't light fires under the butts of every sports car manufacturer's management, who now had to scramble to match what plebian Honda had created with its supercar.

Said Johnny Liebermann of Motor Trend, "Do you enjoy your modern Ferrari? You have [the NSX] to thank for it."

Can't think of any higher praise for the same company that makes the Odyssey minivan...

In the next five years, we can expect to see another sports-car renaissance from the Land of the Rising Sun.  While Toyota Motor Corporation has acknowledged that it may not build a successor for the LF-A immediately, the Lexus brand has the LF-LC sports coupe on the pipeline. While it may be considered more of a grand tourer than an outright supercar, it still looks plenty interesting, with some classy details and Lexus' new spindle grille taken to its logical extreme.  It will surely be a step in the right direction for Lexus' brand image.

LF-LC concept interior. Unreal and totally awesome.

There also will be a new version of the Nissan GT-R, and while details are sparse and incomplete, it will surely bring a whole new level of performance to the table. Nissan isn't a brand that usually ruins the recipe in one generation, so we could probably expect the R36 GT-R to improve on its predecessor, at least in most quantifiable metrics.

And then there's Honda, which is (finally) bringing us a new NSX supercar. After teasing us with the underwhelming (and front-engined!) Acura ASCC concept, then telling us it would evolve into the NSX's successor, then abandoning the project, then finally unveiling a proper mid-engined sports car called the NSX concept, its road to production in 2015 is all but unimpeded. The company's impressive SH all-wheel drive system, which will come standard on the NSX, works similar to Nissan's ATTESA. It allows torque to transfer from left to right and front to rear to give each tire its optimal level of power to keep the car going in whatever twisty line you want it to. You may have seen Tony Stark driving a new NSX Roadster in The Avengers and you probably saw Jerry Seinfeld fight with Jay Leno over who had the rights to buy the first NSX if you watched the Superbowl (and/or its commercials).

Acura NSX concept
What's interesting about each of these new cars, the LF-LC, R36 GT-R and 2015 NSX, is that they're all but guaranteed to have hybrid powertrains. The details on the GT-R are rumors at this point, but it will likely rely on gas and electricity for its motivation. The LF-LC, which will likely compete with base Bentley and top-of-the-line Mercedes touring cars, will likely see tons of hybrid technology from Toyota's extensive experience building green cars like the Prius and RAV4 Electric Vehicle.  The NSX will feature Honda's near-ubiquitous 3.5-liter V6 and electric motor mounted behind the driver and powering the rear wheels while individual electric motors will power each front wheel. Through-the-road hybrid systems like this, where the electric motor and gas engine see little interaction with each other but still provide prodigious performance, seems to be the new normal for sports cars, with even manufacturers like Ferrari getting in on the game.

While the advent of the electric motor makes a manual transmission an unnecessary impedance (electric motors make full torque starting at zero RPM, so individual gears are redundant), and while that fact makes me very sad, I am nonetheless excited to see Japan's technological prowess again translate to some pretty awesome cars.

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons, Lexus and Nissan USA


  1. I think you need to help me buy my next car. Thanks also for the wonderful photos.

  2. If you've got a budget of 400 grand, I think we could find something...

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Your name is hilarious: therefore this spam comment stays.


Be nice, mmmmkay? I allow anonymous comments, but not anonymous (or even attributed) douchebaggery. The Gay Mormon Pioneer's tolerance for hate and venom are incredibly low, but his love of communication and debate are high, so have an opinion, but be kind and gentle when you share it.

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