Sports Cars from Japan Are Always a Good Thing

Heritage. Lineage. Honor.

The car was right-hand drive. My legs rubbed up against the steering wheel as I worked the teardrop-shaped nub of a shift knob through the gears and the 3.2-liter V-6 gnashed mechanically behind my head. We couldn't have been going more than 50 mph, but it didn't matter. It was about the context. The history.

I was afforded a rare opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Honda's Takasu Proving Ground, located in the central region of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, to drive the updated 2019 Acura NSX. While there, I had a chance to do a quick fun run in a Japanese-market 2001 NSX Type S, complete with a comically small, square Space Invaders-style navigation system perched atop the dash. Time warp stuff.

Takasu is where Honda conducted a chunk of development work on the first-generation NSX, and although much of the engineering, styling, and production of the new-era NSX was off-loaded to America, the powertrain work was largely handled by a team in Japan, and Takasu played a role. With its mix of a high-speed oval, skidpad, winter testing area (it gets wicked cold on Hokkaido), mimicked mix of European and American roadways, and signature track inspired by the Nürburgring, Takasu offers a diverse mix of surfaces and high-speed runs. It's also a place that has seen few gaijin outside of Honda/Acura employees pass through its gates.

While taking in Takasu and after a blistering couple of laps on the 3.85-mile, 17-turn track in the 2019 NSX—tightened up a few notches in its suspension hardware and related software departments—it struck me how serious Japan's top automakers have become about performance at the highest levels, how they've leveraged their heritage to create vehicles that pay homage to the past while pushing into the future.

Toyota is the latest to step up with its new Supra. We just had a go in a prototype that was built in partnership with BMW. As was the case with the Toyota 86 developed with Subaru, Toyota again decided to share the burden. While there are those who will question the BMW tie-up, if the choice was to do it with the German automaker or not do it at all (more than likely the case), why wouldn't you? Tetsuya Tada, the chief engineer of the Toyota 86 and the man who also leads the Supra project, told us back in March that the Supra had to have a straight-six engine. BMW is a straight-six expert, and Toyota doesn't have one anymore. So yeah, it made sense.

Tada also made it clear that the Supra will have a 50:50 chassis balance and will be a car Supra fans will appreciate. Based on our first taste of it, we're confident the new Supra will have personality of its own, particularly when it comes to how it handles. It will also go racing and will be the new face of Toyota's NASCAR efforts. (Granted, that race car will be quite, er, different from the production version.) In other words, the Supra will carry the banner for Toyota performance cars, and that bodes well for not only the Supra's future but perhaps also a future in which Toyota continues to develop more exciting models.

Nissan was the first to bring back its signature performer with the GT-R, and it's sending it off with a million-dollar bang thanks to its 710-hp GT-R50 special edition, which was styled by the venerable Italdesign studio. Like the NSX and the Supra, the GT-R has a special place in automotive history, and since the arrival of the new generation in 2009, Godzilla has stomped across the world and over the competition with its twin-turbo six, all-wheel drive, and anime design. Although the GT-R's future is uncertain, Nissan is committed to its NISMO performance subbrand, and it seems like the perfect time for the company to redefine the GT-R—perhaps with an electrified version along the lines of the NSX.

Winding up the old-school NSX, hearing it, and feeling it as I rolled through simulated European countryside in the wilds of Japan was a stark reminder that a determined group of people can do great things, can create a car that is worth reviving and evolving—no matter what the formula, how it's done, or who it's done with. In an age where the automotive world is blasting ahead into uncertain territory, we should celebrate the fact the NSX, GT-R, and Supra exist at all, because they represent so much more than simply another competitor in the market. They represent what we all respect and enjoy about the past, present, and future of performance and our enthusiasm for it, Japanese or otherwise.