The 2014 Chicago auto show may be devoid of sports car debuts and introductions, but that wasn’t the case twenty-five years ago. The 1989 show saw both the introduction of the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the first public showing of the Acura NSX. Both cars couldn’t have been any more different: one was a simple, affordable, front-engine roadster; the other a high-end, aluminum-intensive, mid-engine sports car designed to wrestle with blue-blood exotics.
Despite those differences, the MX-5 and NSX have something in common: both cars shocked the global automotive industry. The dawn of the 1990s marked what now seems to be a golden age of Japanese automobiles. Japan’s automakers were gunning for their foreign rivals in a way they had never done before. Engineers were encouraged to explore new technologies, while product planners sought to carve new niches in the market. Bolstered by a short-lived economic bubble back home, these automakers freely innovated in ways we’ve rarely seen since, and spurred the rest of the industry to re-evaluate both its product portfolios and its future plans.
Although quite a few cars exemplify this Japanese automotive renaissance, we can’t help but notice that five of the strongest examples—including the aforementioned Mazda and Honda—debuted in the States in 1989, exactly a quarter-century ago. Here are the five Japanese cars that shook the automotive industry 25 years ago.
When the Acura NSX arrived in 1990 following its debut at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, it seemed almost too good to be true. Honda channeled all of its engineering expertise into a trailblazing supercar that sought to achieve a level of refinement and driver-focused simplicity absent in European supercars. The result was a lightweight two-seat mid-engine coupe producing 270 hp from a 3.0-liter naturally-aspirated V-6 mated to a five-speed manual gearbox — a memorable formula that is revered for being much more than the sum of its parts. Unflinchingly, we called the NSX “the most cooperative and best-handling mid-engined car we have ever driven.”
Although the 1991 Acura NSX clocked in an impressive 0-60 mph sprint of about 5.5 seconds and could hit 155 mph (thanks in part to Honda’s variable valve timing technology), the real success of the NSX was that it offered then top-shelf performance with almost none of the compromising drawbacks thought to be inherent to a purpose-built supercar.
“Probably the most striking single impression the NS-X prototype made on us was how few concessions it demands in return for the racy layout and the thrusting performance,” editor Kevin Smith noted in September 1989. “How many times have we resigned ourselves to the odd, skewed, cramped driving position of the 308/328-series Ferraris? And the athletic entry and exit, the scattered minor controls, the nonexistent rear-quarter visibility? Didn’t we actually revel in those eccentricities, cherishing the quirkiness, because that was the price of character?…Hey, it’s not for everyone. Hey, it’s something special. Hey, it’s a Ferrari. Well, hey, forget it.”
The Acura NSX had a comfortable, livable cockpit with reasonable trunk space; a simple, gimmick-free design; smooth, predictable power delivery from the V-6 and five-speed manual transmission; and an innovative aluminum monocoque chassis that kept weight down to only 2860 pounds. It was a supercar you could actually drive and afford, starting at just $62,000 when it hit U.S. showrooms in 1990.
Selected as our 1991 Automobile of the Year, the Acura NSX has remained one of the most celebrated enthusiast’s cars because of its rare combination of performance, livability, and affordability. “The best thing about the NSX is that it exists at all,” we wrote in May 1989, “and that big, respectable Honda is going to produce it for sale to the public.” The NSX ended production in 2005 with more than 18,000 units sold worldwide, but its explosive arrival on the automotive landscape will long be remembered as a watershed moment for Japanese engineering that helped set the bar for the next generation of supercars.
Like Toyota did with Lexus, Nissan also took a big risk in 1989 by launching a brand-new luxury brand in the U.S. called Infiniti. Also like Lexus, Infiniti first launched with an impressive full-size, rear-wheel-drive flagship sedan that put the Germans on notice. Unlike Lexus, though, the Infiniti Q45 that arrived as a 1990 model took a sportier, BMW-like approach to the luxury sedan ideal, rather than the plush, silent Lexus LS400 that was more of a threat to Mercedes-Benz.
We got our first look at the big Infiniti sedan in January 1989, when we drove a prototype of the future Nissan flagship that was then called Infiniti QX. After a high-speed, 140-mph run around Nissan’s test track, we came away impressed by the lively 4.5-liter, 278-hp V-8 engine. “This big Infiniti sedan should more than live up to its advance billing as a true BMW killer,” we said. The Infiniti Q45 then officially debuted at the 1989 Detroit auto show, launching the Infiniti brand together with the smaller M30 coupe.
Our praise for the Q45 continued after we tested the production model later in 1989. Despite the car’s unassuming styling, the underpinnings were undeniably advanced and capable, helping the car live up to its billing as a Q-ship. “Owners with the sense to appreciate the car’s very special dynamic and tactile qualities should not care that it isn’t the visual extravagance it might have been,” we said in the September 1989 issue of Automobile Magazine.
Our judgment did not quite play out in the Infiniti’s entrance into luxury market, though, as the Q45 was not nearly the immediate market success that the Lexus LS400 was. Apparently buyers took more to the Lexus LS400’s traditional, Mercedes-Benz-like front grille than they did to the Q45’s more distinctive, grille-less front end bisected by a large, intricate Infiniti badge. An abstract advertising campaign which showed many picturesque nature scenes but very little of the car may have been to blame as well.
West coast editor Michael Jordan still remembers the Q45 as the more interesting car than the Lexus, though, calling the Infiniti sportier, faster, and more distinctive than the Lexus which he describes as a “set-it-and-forget-it mega-Camry.” Still, it was the Lexus that endured, as subsequent generations of the Infiniti Q45 were unable to follow-up on the impressive luxury sport sedan from 1989 and the Q45 nameplate ended its run in 2006.
You only need to look so far as the new, Q-based Infiniti naming scheme to see the influence of that first Q45, though. Despite playing second fiddle to the Lexus LS in retrospect, the Infiniti Q45 showed the world that Nissan, too, was capable of producing a world-class luxury sedan.
In 1989, the idea of a Japanese automaker creating a stand-alone brand to sell luxury cars to affluent buyers wasn’t new—Acura broke that ground three years prior—but the idea of crafting a large, flagship rear-wheel-drive sedan that could match or even beat the best luxury cars produced by the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW? That was new, and that’s precisely how the Lexus LS400 startled the world upon its debut in 1989.
To casual observers, the LS400 seemed to virtually appear from thin air, but
the car was actually a long time coming. The so-called “Circle F” project began in 1983, when Toyota’s chairman issued the edict to “build a car better than the best in the world.” In early 1984, a committee established benchmarks for the new luxury halo car; a year later, chief engineers took up residence in southern California to immerse themselves in the lifestyle of a typical American luxury car buyer.
The attention to detail resulted in a near-perfect car, a rarity, especially for an all-new design launched by an all-new brand. Although the LS400 wasn’t as entertaining to drive as the likes of the Infiniti Q45, it delivered an unimpeachable level of luxury. “There isn’t a car on the road that feels as quiet, as purely luxurious in its isolation from the noise of living,” we wrote in 1990 when awarding the LS400 the first of two consecutive Automobile Magazine All-Star awards. “The drivetrain is superlative, as expected. What will be most disturbing to the Teutonic pride is the LS400’s absolute confidence on the road—in traffic, along the fun roads, and at speed.” The LS further flustered its rivals with its price; despite competing with the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the BMW 7 Series, the LS400 was priced at $43,000, essentially on par with mid-level Benz and Bimmer offerings. All this led David E. Davis Jr. to proclaim, “the fox is about to find his way into the henhouse.”
“We’re accustomed to cars coming to market with problems still unsolved, bugs still exterminated,” we noted during a comparison test, where the LS400 handily beat the Audi V8, Infiniti Q45, BMW 535i, and Mercedes-Benz 300E. “The LS400 is not that sort of car. It feels as though they’ve been building it for about ten years. It’s all sorted out. Toyota nailed it with the big Lexus.” Well, not quite. Early cars were subject to cruise control and third brake light bugs, but the flawless, immediate manner in which nearly 8000 brand-new LS400 sedans were recalled, serviced, and returned to customers remains a case study in the automotive industry to this day.
Our only complaint: styling. Early on, we described the LS400’s plain form as “an amalgam of BMW and Mercedes-Benz design cues, given an American spin with a Cadillac-esque egg-crate grille.” “One can’t blame the Japanese for a light touch in this area,” we elaborated in early 1990. “It seems to be their only remaining weakness. And who knows for how long?”
Now that we live in the era of spindle-shaped grilles and razor-sharp sheetmetal creases, heed this warning: be careful what you wish for.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
The idea of a small, affordable, rear-wheel-drive roadster wasn’t new in 1989, but most prior examples of that genre were too impractical or unreliable for day-to-day use. Then along came the Mazda MX-5 Miata at the 1989 Chicago auto show, showing that it was possible to build a thrilling convertible sports car that was actually usable as a daily driver. The car instantly caught our attention.
So smitten were we with the new Japanese convertible that it scooped up our first-ever Automobile of the Year award, in our January 1990 issue. “The MX-5 is a wonderfully nimble device that doesn’t rattle your teeth with stiff springing,” wrote technical editor Barry Winfield. “It is so light, and so graced with helpful suspension attitudes, that it flicks into bends in instant response to the wheel.” With handling like that, no wonder we had no complaints that the car’s 1.6-liter inline-four engine dished up only 116 hp. And to top it off, the Miata was more than just a topless plaything: “[It] is not pure frivolity; it’s a seriously considered entity… In many ways, the Miata has an exclusive, personal feel.”
We quickly commandeered a Mazda Miata for a Four Seasons test. After just six months, associate editor Mark Schirmer wrote, “The Miata is neither a family car nor a foul-weather one. It is small, light, and immensely fun to drive… The logbook is overflowing with positive comments.” At the conclusion of our yearlong test, during which time we drove the car from Michigan to California, David E. Davis, Jr., wrote, “Our selection [of the Miata as Automobile of the Year] couldn’t have worked out better. That simple little sports car turned out to be at least as good as we said it was… The Mazda Miata is a paragon of sports-car virtue. It does everything right, and it’s enormous fun.”
To summarize the test, we wrote, “When judged as a whole, the Miata is the most exciting automobile built in years.”
By June 1990, Mazda’s Toshihiko Hirai had told us that there would never be a Mazda Miata coupe (despite concepts and persistent rumors to the contrary), because such a car “would violate the essence of the open-air roadster,” we wrote. Hirai did permit a version with a four-speed automatic transmission but told us, “If the truth be told, we’d really rather people didn’t know about it.” The Miata was named an All-Star in 1991 and again in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002.
Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo
When the Datsun 240Z first arrived in the U.S. in 1969, its distinctive styling and performance-per-dollar factor made it a huge success. Over successive generations, though, the Z-car got heavier, softer, and more expensive, falling behind competitors like the Chevrolet Corvette in the 1980s with the middling Z31-generation 300ZX. Nissan reversed this trend in 1989, though, when the new Z32 Nissan 300ZX Turbo exploded onto the scene with an all-new platform, engine, and performance-oriented mission that revived the Nissan spirit for innovation and driving excellence.
When we named the Nissan 300ZX our 1990 Design of the Year, design editor Robert Cumberford compared this sports coupe with the benchmark Porsche 944, saying, “At long last, and for the first time, the Japanese have achieved parity with European cars of impeccable heritage.” It was an important moment for Japan’s performance reputation.
The 1990 Nissan 300ZX Turbo was powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine that made 300 hp. We called this engine “lusty, throaty, meaty, beefy, big, and bouncy,” saying that, “Nissan does engines like no one else in Japan does.” Its power output was very impressive for the time, making considerably more horses than the C4 Chevrolet Corvette, which only got 245 hp from its 5.7-liter V-8. With an advanced suite of technology features like four-wheel steering, adjustable dampers, and variable power steering, the 300ZX Turbo not only sprinted from 0-60 mph in a quick 5.5 seconds, but also proved graceful and easy to drive quickly. We were so duly impressed with the Nissan that at the end of its year-long test that we put it on the cover of the February 1991 issue of Automobile Magazine, proclaiming, “We’d be happy to do another Four Seasons test of a twin-turbo Nissan 300ZX. Starting right now. With the same car. It’s that good.” In fact, the 300ZX Turbo remains the one of only two Four Seasons cars in our 28-year history to receive a perfect five-star rating.
Our love for the Nissan 300ZX Turbo continued into the 1990s, and it went on to win multiple All-Star awards as we called it everything from “brilliant,” to “perfect,” to “a milestone.” When Nissan shelved the Z nameplate in 1996, it was a sad day for enthusiasts, but we didn’t have to wait too long for the Z revival in the form of the Nissan 350Z, our 2003 Automobile of the Year. Without this world-class 300ZX Turbo, the Z-car may not have made it this far.