I n the early 1990s, Detroit was struggling with reality. The fifth-gen Chevrolet Monte Carlo was a soggy mess; ditto the Pontiac Grand Am and the Buick Riviera. What the disillusioned Stateside masses needed was a new generation of coupés that looked cool, and went as well as they looked. And Japan was only too happy to provide…
While the good ol’ boys struggled to wring 150bhp from their asthmatic V6 motors, Japan had figures double that in their crosshairs, and there was unprecedented chassis development too. The US was wide open for invasion.
Toyota had begun its development programme for the Supra MkIV in 1989, and by mid-1990 it was slated for production later in the year – but then Nissan unleashed its super-advanced Z32 300ZX, and sent Toyota’s designers scurrying back to their flipcharts. The fledgling supercoupé market quickly escalated into an arms race, and the whole planet benefitted from the tit-for-tat engineering dogfight.
It produced the cars we have here– a pair of early-’90s bruisers, conceived in Japan to take on America, thundering down British roads. Ready? Let's go...
The mark of a truly great piece of car design is when the form seems to transcend the ages, never really becoming dated, as with the Supra MkIV. Given the oh-so-1980s right-angles of the MkIII, its replacement must have appeared ultra-futuristic at first, although it has mellowed and matured with time.
THE SUPRA evidently isn’t a scary thing to buy. 'They’re almost bombproof,' says Torque GT’s Tristan Longden. 'You only need to be looking out for age-related wear such as warping of the dash top, boot rubbers perishing and yellowing of the headlights on JDM examples.' Naturally, being a 1990s Japanese car, you need to check thoroughly for rust – as a rule, fresh imports are likely to be less rusty than older imports. You should also be careful to check through the history, as few Supras on the market are standard: if it’s been modified, ensure that it’s been done by professionals with quality parts. Keep in mind that full-fat UK-model cars offered 326hp as standard; a stock Japanese-market import may be closer to 300hp-ish. JDM Supra twin-turbos were officially rated at 276bhp, but generally dyno around the 300-mark. Imported cars will also have a 120mph speed limiter. The easiest way to spot a UK car is by its functional bonnet vent and glass headlights.
THE COMPLEXITY of the ZX means that, while it’s hyperintelligent in operation, there are a number of potential pitfalls. Tristan Longden of Torque GT advises steering clear of cars built from 1989 to February 1990 because of possible cylinder head and valve problems. 'Get a full history listing everything that’s been done to the car. Having a compression test done will pay dividends too, and keep an eye on the boost gauge at idle – the needle should be to the far left; if it’s more to the middle, there could be compression issues.' Twin-turbo cars can have cooling problems – check the temp gauge during the test-drive, and also look in the nearside wheel well afterwards for signs of coolant egress. And be aware that alternators are weak, and can last fewer than 80k; it's over $500 to sort.
There’s such forcefulness with the way the Nissan cossets, reassures, then nukes the tenets of physics itself, and yet the Toyota… well, it’s something else. It’s a car I’ve dreamed of owning since they were new. I don’t want to sideline the 300ZX by hero-worshipping the Supra, and I don’t want the Supra to be rubbish.
The Supra isn’t. At all. As you ease yourself through its curvaceous entrance and drop down into the driver-centric cabin (or more accurately, grunt, squeeze, and thud like a sack of spuds) it’s immediately apparent that, while the exterior aesthetic is as timeless as Dorian Gray’s portrait trapped in amber, the innards are very much of their time. This isn’t a criticism, merely an observation – Japanese interiors of the early 1990s followed a clear pattern: make everything out of sturdy plastic, point all the interesting bits at the driver, and have a whacking great tunnel in the middle. Then add some more plastic. The Supra’s hook is that the driver gets to sit in a sort of U-shaped amphitheatre of mischief. It’s a strict 2+2 rather than a full four-seater, so you’d only invite people to sit in the back if you weren’t all that bothered about remaining friends, but the front half is where all the action is anyway.
The beltline’s high and the steering column’s low, helping you to properly snuggle in as you acquaint yourself with the controls – although, even though the Supra’s a veritable tech-fest, the principal controls you really need to know are the bit that makes all hell break loose, the one next to it that stops it happening, another to stir around and gee the thing up, and something to hang on to. This last part is harder than you think, as 326 horsepower in a low-slung ’90s whippet makes your palms perspire more than you might imagine. It’s a proper rollercoaster.
The tacho is proudly displayed in the centre, Porsche-style, its 8000rpm target goading you on to misbehave – as if such encouragement were required. The speedo offers a tantalising 180mph (not strictly realistic, but what about this car truly needs to be anchored in reality?), and as you start to wind the thing up, you find yourself rewarded with gratifying heft. That six-speed gearbox feels unburstable, like those you’d find in Australian muscle cars, all no-nonsense granite and surety.
The muscular straight-six whispers to you at idle; it’s not intimidating, not laddish about its potential, it merely twiddles its thumbs and awaits instructions. A tickle of the throttle is rewarded by a little rock from side to side, but the first hint of the twinkling galaxy of horsepower unveils itself as the rev needle spins, when the turbo kicks in with an increasingly urgent whistle as a hilarious shock. In Joel’s case this feeling is accentuated by the aftermarket upgrades, but I'm assured that this is very much in character for the 300ZX’s natural style – as the rev needle passes 3000rpm its sweep suddenly doubles in pace, the redline arriving with shocking speed. Not that you’re looking at the rev counter, of course – it seems rather more important to keep tabs on where the horizon is, because it’s rapidly become rather a lot closer than it was a few short moments ago.
The clutch is friendly and the throw of the ’box is relatively short, which is all thoroughly reassuring as gear-changes present their necessity sooner than expected, and all the while your backside shimmies on a crunchy mattress of onesand-zeroes; the chassis isn’t analogue and onedimensional like a Caterham, it’s hyper-intelligent and packing more technology than the Science Museum. It may simply be a sort of mental placebo, the weight of knowledge convincing you that there are electronic brains shuffling you about, but each corner feeds back a feeling that something cleverer than you is controlling the damping, the rear-steer, everything below the beltline that you shouldn’t ask too many questions about. It really is a remarkable car. And the dampers, Joel tells us, are on their softest setting – it could be a track hero, but he’s got it set to ‘GT’. Rightly so.
From a low-down swell of menacing rumbling, which even at idle acts as a harbinger for some pretty devastating dramatics to come, the act of exploring the rev range leads to some howling hysteria and genuinely surprising thrust from a car of such solidity and girth. At first, it feels like the sort of machine you could slip gently into and cross a continent in one fell swoop; having monstered the bouncing hydrocarbon fury of forced induction.
It’s with mixed feelings that I approach the Supra.
Indeed, it’s aged beautifully, with those banks of cute circles forming the tail-lights, the improbably large and yet wholly designappropriate rear spoiler, and that long-bonnet/short-cabin profile that echoes the classic British sports car template.
Nissan’s 300ZX offers an interesting counterpoint – a car sufficiently offbeat that it’s not exactly a common sight on Britain’s roads. Whereas the Supra has a home within the modifying community as well as the retro-modern concours crowd, the brawny 300ZX has generally been left observing from the sidelines. It’s a niche classic, a semi-secret, a car that enjoys strong enthusiast support but is more likely to leave passers-by scratching their heads.
It’s for this reason that we’ve selected a pure, original, Supra to go head-to-head with a sympathetically modified 300ZX – the two cars best represent the ownership scenes of the respective models in the UK. Mark Blythe’s Supra is a bona fide UK-market TT6 in full factory spec, aside from the larger backbox, while Joel Pickering’s 300ZX is a Japanese import that he’s modified in OEM+ form – that is, evolved and enhanced rather than radically altered, to turn the car into what it could have been.
'I wouldn’t call myself a purist,' Joel admits. 'My aim is to maintain the original form and spirit of the car, but to upgrade performance and reliability to a modern standard.' So the 300ZX we have with us today features upgraded turbos that spool up more eagerly, uprated fuelling and cooling systems, and aftermarket coilovers and anti-roll bars. The larger wheels offer a broader contact patch, and they have Skyline brakes peeping out between the spokes. He’s also turned the car native with the addition of UK clocks and UK-spec window glass. All of this, Joel feels, is in keeping with Nissan’s own approach to engineering evolution: it’s the 300ZX they probably would have ended up making…
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the cabin is the familiarity of it all, which is a little spooky if you’ve never actually sat in one before. The reason it all feels so comfortable is Nissan’s unwavering attention to detail; all the controls you need are right there at your fingertips, on handy little pods around the dash, so you don’t need to spend any time acquainting yourself with new surroundings - aside from the Micra-sourced indicator stalk, which is on the wrong side. You just twist the key (titanium for the master, plasticsleeved steel for the secondaries) and get on with it. Which is good, because just getting on with it is something the big Zee does very well indeed; while the power initially bleeds in from the peripheries like a big-lunged naturally aspirated motor, the presence of the turbos almost comes and you feel as if you’ve been headbutted in the kidneys by an irritable mule. Holy cow, this thing is quick. And when the second turbo kicks in… hell, it’s like a VTEC on steroids. You think you’ve used up all the power but, damn it, there’s more.
It takes a recalibration of the senses to reconcile the fact that you’re hanging on with white knuckles to a machine so clearly from another age, and yet the manner in which it makes the scenery go all blurry is so implacably modern. How the hell are there any of these cars left?
Surely they’ve all been spanged into bus stops or bounced through hedges as their improbable thrust ambushes the unsuspecting bag of meat behind the wheel?
Stability. That’s the answer. That’s how they’ve survived. For the Supra’s trump card is its surefootedness. Yes, it’s fast enough to make a contemporary Ferrari owner check his bank balance and reassess a few life choices, but it doesn’t chew you up and spit you out at the limit. By sidestepping electronic chassis control and instead focusing on simplicity of function, Toyota’s engineers were able to screw together the underpinnings of the gods themselves: anti-roll bars like a lumberjack’s wrist, damper control tighter than your uncle at Christmas, an enthusiasm for anti-squat and anti-dive that’d have a gym instructor begging for his P45, it’s like some enrapturing utopia of point-to-point pace.
There’s an inherent dichotomy in placing these cars side by side. On the one hand, they both represent exactly the same thing – the purity of focus that led Japan to redefine the American sports car market and, by consequence, frantically elbow one another out of the way to bring forth the most intelligent, desirable and capable car to truly shame the lethargy of Detroit. On the other hand, however, time has been kinder to the Supra, its star having risen into the junior-supercar firmament which, by default, leaves the 300ZX as something of an also-ran.
This, of course, is wholly unfair on the Nissan, for it is a phenomenal machine by any measurable standard. Okay, a smart-money investor would track down a hen’s-teeth UK manual Supra if the purchase was solely for investment purposes, but a driver? A real-world enthusiast? It’s a much tougher call. The brawny Nissan is so jam-packed with tech that it’s like driving around in a manically excited branch of Dixons, and yet everything it serves up is unfussed, no-nonsense, without histrionics.
But it’s the Supra that must take the crown here. There’s just something magical about the manner in which Toyota crafted this slippery supermodel form, then jammed an Exocet missile up its backside. The Supra is more than a car. It’s an art piece, a fusion of design, technology and purity that transcends mortal perceptions of physics.
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
POWER: 243kW (326hp)
@ 5600rpm TORQUE: 427Nm (315lb-ft) @ 4000rpm WEIGHT: 1642kg 0-97km/h (60MPH): 4.9sec
TOP SPEED: 251km/h (156mph)
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual
POWER 224kW (300hp)
TORQUE 384Nm (283lb-ft)
@3600rpm WEIGHT 1550kg 0-97km/h (60MPH) 5.5sec TOP SPEED 249km/h (155mph)