SUPRA V 300ZX

TOUGH TYROS

Unique Cars - - CONTENTS - WORDS DAN BEVISS PHO­TOS NEIL FRASER FROM MOD­ERN CLAS­SICS MAG­A­ZINE UK

In the early 1990s, Detroit was strug­gling with re­al­ity. The fifth-gen Chevro­let Monte Carlo was a sogg y 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 scurr ying back to their f lipcharts. The f ledgling 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.

In­deed, it's aged beau­ti­fully, with those banks of cute cir­cles form­ing the tail-lights, the im­prob­a­bly large and yet wholly de­sign-ap­pro­pri­ate 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 off beat 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

“HAV­ING 326 HORSE­POWER IN A LOW-SLUNG 90S WHIPPET MAKES YOUR PALMS PER­SPIRE MORE THAN YOU MIGHT IMAG­INE"

“THE PRES­ENCE OF THE TUR­BOS COMES AS A HI­LAR­I­OUS SHOCK"

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 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 shuff ling 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.

“THE DRIVER SITS IN A U-SHAPED AM­PHITHE­ATRE OF MIS­CHIEF"

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 any way.

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 gratif ying 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 tick le of the throt­tle is re­warded by a lit­tle rock from side to side, but the first hint of the twin­kling gala x y of horse­power un­veils it­self as the rev nee­dle spins, when the turbo kicks in with an in­creas­ingly ur­gent whis­tle

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 g ym in­struc­tor beg­ging for his P45, it’s like some en­rap­tur­ing utopia of point-to-point pace.

THE MOD­ERN CLAS­SICS VIEW

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 letharg y 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, tech­nolog y and pu­rity that tran­scends mor­tal per­cep­tions of physics.

ABOVE Stubby shifter for short throw changes.

RIGHT The in­te­rior's acres of plas­tics mar­ries luxo touches and sporti­ness.

ABOVE Swoopy Nis­san coupe still cuts a sharp fig­ure.

ABOVE Z is for for Zed gen­er­a­tion and this is one of its best.

RIGHT The door's open, invit­ing you to step in­side for a thrilling ride.

ABOVE Winged Supra is a time­less clas­sic.

TOP Diff­fer­ing ap­proach to aero and down­force is clear to see.

RIGHT Both are front-en­gine/reardrive and weapon­s­grade fast.

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