All the world’s a stage. Japanese ’90s rally replicas are coming of age! Join Drive-My in a screaming celebration of turbos and four-wheel drive Words Dan Trent. Photography Paul Harmer.
JAPANESE RALLY REPLICAS – IMPREZA, LANCER EVO, CELICA GT4
How to make like McRae, Mäkinen and Sainz
Dismiss bonnet scoops and big wings as trashy if you will, but, whether or not they fit within perceived ideas of what a classic car should be, a quarter of a century on it’s time to look again at ’90s rally replicas and their role as symbols of a golden age in the sport, not to mention attractive and enjoyable ownership propositions.
Brash or not, appreciation is easier with a little context. You don’t need to be a football fan to understand how Eric Cantona personified Manchester United at the peak of its ’90s swagger, or how supporters enjoyed reflected glory in donning a Number Seven shirt. And it was the same with rallying, the fact that spectators could identify with personalities such as McRae, Sainz, Burns and Mäkinen and then go out and buy a near-identical Subaru, Toyota or Mitsubishi, inspiring tribal followings as passionate as those for any football club.
Much as every baby-boomer rally fan wanted to drive an Escort and be like Roger Clark, so their Generation X offspring are now buying cars idolised on the PlayStation or Sunday afternoons in front of Top Gear Rally Report. Exotica such as the wide-arched Impreza 22B are now six-figure collectables; others, like the Evo VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition, are on a similar path. But many remain attainable, and as exciting to own and drive as they were back in the day. And as ownersmature so does the market, with a new-found interest in preservation, and increasing value placed on originality.
All three of these cars are associated with championship success in 1990s rallying but it makes chronological sense to start with the Toyota Celica GT-Four. Lancia may well have dominated the early Group A era but Carlos Sainz’s 1990 driver’s title in the ST165 Celica GT-Four was a watershed moment. Juha Kankkunen clawed one back for the Integrale in 1991 but notice had been served – ’90s rallying would belong to the Japanese. Sainz and Celica scored again in 1992 in the new ST185, Kankkunen switching from Lancia to Toyota for 1993. It was a wise move, the Finn bagging another drivers’ championship in the Celica as well as the first manufacturers’ title for a Japanese carmaker.
‘IT’S THE MOST EXTREME IN ITS ENGINEERING, BUT THE MOST CONSERVATIVE IN ITS ROAD MANNERS’
The Celica you see here is an ST205 from 1994, the third-generation GT-Four making its competitive debut part-way through the season. It was a big step up but Didier Auriol stuck with the ST185 to claim driver and manufacturer titles in the expectation that the new car would equip him to do the same the following year. Group A rules meant selling 2500 roadgoing versions to qualify and, accordingly, the first batch of roadgoing ST205s are known as WRC editions. The bulk went to Japan, Toyota’s UK allocation at the time expected to reach just 100 units. All bear homologation hardware and are coveted for their direct link to the rally cars.
Toyota threw the full weight of its resources at the ST205, highlights including ‘Super Strut’ front suspension with an offset kingpin and camber control arm to reduce torque steer and improve front-end grip. By any measure it was a complex and costly engineering solution, variations on the theme later being adopted by the second-generation Ford Focus RS as well as the Renaultsport Clios and Meganes.
For all the outrageous looks and technical intrigue, first impressions are of an understated driving machine, not helped by a drab interior lined with hard plastics and standard ’90s-era Toyota switchgear. The engine is gruff, the five-speed gearbox a little sloppy and the suspension on the soft side. Get some exhaust gases flowing through the twin-port turbo and things improve, the boost combining with the kind of revvy, twin-cam verve found in the best Japanese engines of the time. With an official 239bhp it’s both the least powerful car here and the heaviest by some margin but, even accounting for a fair amount of pitch and roll, there’s a rally car’s sense of agility through its compact wheelbase. And in best Toyota tradition the Celica is built tough, the GT-Four’s resilience being one quality inherited from its Safari-winning Group B predecessor.
On dry tarmac the Celica tracks confidently but reveals a playful side in response to throttle lifts that would translate well to wet and loose surfaces. It’s a beguiling mix, given it’s arguably the most extreme in its engineering but also the most conservative in its road manners. Then there’s its notoriety, given its role in one of the more controversial episodes in 1990s rallying.
This is, of course, the infamous turbo cheat and disqualification from the 1995 Championship. A story in itself, the short version is that engineers contrived a preloaded collar to bypass the mandated turbo restrictor, the mechanism snapping back to display the correct one if scrutineers removed the ducting for inspection. It was a logical, if warped, extension of Toyota’s mindset but spelled the end of the Celica’s dominance, just as an explosive new pairing arrived on the scene.
That, of course, was a certain Scotsman in a blue Subaru. Colin McRae’s speed had never been in doubt, Prodrive’s Dave Richards sensing a similar fire in his driving style to that of his old driving partner Ari Vatanen. Early on, McRae had been invited to a test alongside Vatanen in the Legacy he was helping to develop for Prodrive, the Finn’s desire to impress his young protégé seeing the car on its roof on the first run. Richards would have been forgiven for questioning the wisdom of having two such characters on the same team but, thankfully, he stuck with it and the arrival of the faster and more competitive Impreza in 1993 came at the perfect time for McRae.
Meanwhile, Sainz’s switch to Subaru at the start of the 1995 season meant he dodged the bullet of Toyota’s disgrace and was well-placed to claim a third title. Thanks to controversial team orders in the penultimate round in Catalunya he may well have felt entitled to it. But McRae had other ideas. A Drivers’ Championship on home soil, the manner in which it was scored and the car in which it was achieved were an emotive combination. That fans could buy something that looked and sounded the same from Subaru dealers inspired a passion that resonates to this day.
Today the Impreza appears almost demure in this company. The example here is a WRX Type RASTI Version III, Subaru’s endearingly bonkers nomenclature all part of the fun. Simple version? The original WRX was the foundation, the wingless WRX Type RA the stripped-out version with wind-up windows, super-short gearing and roof vent to simplify conversion into a privateer rally car. STI iterations of both were faster and fancier still, the situation further confused by endless special editions.
An imported Japanese market variant, this Impreza benefits from extensive upgrades adopted for the 1997 model year. These included the later grille, the most obvious visual difference to the famous L555 BAT Prodrive car with which McRae scored his title. Bigger changes were taking place in rallying, though, and in 1997 Group A evolved into the more relaxed World Rally Car regulations, Prodrive adopting the stiffer, lighter two-door Impreza as a result. However, if only for its association with McRae’s win, the four-door version retains purist appeal.
The longitudinal layout is more straightforward than the transverse configuration of the Toyota and Mitsubishi, the boxer engine’s favourable centre of gravity and reduced height meaning superb visibility over a low, flat bonnet. This, signature frameless doors and the distinctive off-beat burble add up to a charismatic combination that is much loved by Subaru fans.
Compared with the Celica, the Impreza feels simpler to appreciate as a driving machine too. The owner of this one has spent two years painstakingly returning it to original specification with a full nut-and-bolt restoration, the factory-fresh feel flattering its already appealing character. There’s zero play and satisfying weight to the three-spoke Nardi wheel, the beautifully direct, short-throw gearshift another benefit of the mechanical layout and something anyone with experience of rally Ford Escorts from a previous age would readily appreciate.
Japanese tastes meant Subaru could get away with a much stiffer set-up for its domestic market specials, the Impreza also more powerful than the Toyota and feeling light, agile and eager. There’s quite a bit of lag in the boxer four but its balance and short-stroke design mean there’s little inertia and correspondingly eager throttle response, the boost kicking in at about 3500rpm with a thrilling rush. It’ll rev out to nearly 8000rpm too, though pushing it that hard seems a little unfair and it gives its best in the mid-range. The Type RA’s ludicrously short gearing means you’re flying through the ratios but that’s no chore given how sweet the shift is, the ability to enjoy the car to its full at real-world speeds a breath of fresh air compared with over-geared modern cars. On a twisty B-road there’s still little that will come close.
The engine’s position ahead of the front axle means it wants to push on initially but this can be offset by trailing the brakes or a well-timed lift. And once the nose is pointing in the right direction you can be hard on the power, whatever the conditions. STI versions like this have a more playful nature and will rotate into corners on the throttle thanks to a rear-biased torque split on the adjustable centre diff. A thumbwheel gives the option to tighten it for a more even split – or even lock it completely – if outright traction is a greater priority.
Switching to the Mitsubishi, it’s worth noting that for all Richard Burns’ later association with Subaru he actually made his name in an Evo IV like this. Burns was another champion in the making but, as Subaru and McRae struggled to maintain consistency, it was Mitsubishi’s star driver Tommi Mäkinen who really capitalised. By adapting the Galant VR4’s running gear for the smaller Lancer, Mitsubishi had created a killer combination too. It was aptly named, each year bringing incremental improvements to the engine, running gear and aero, a combination that, by 1996 and the Evolution III, took Mäkinen to the first of four consecutive world titles.
This one is an Evo IV, launched for the 1997 model year and its initial production run of 6000 units selling out within three days of going on sale in Japan. Despite the introduction of more relaxed World Rally Car rules that year, Mitsubishi actually ran the Evo IV as a Group A car, demand such that homologation quotas were no problem, while customers loved the uncompromising character. The fact that it looked as if it had driven straight from stage finish to showroom was exactly the point.
‘THE EVO IV’S INITIAL RUN OF 6000 SOLD OUT WITHIN THREE DAYS OF GOING ON SALE IN JAPAN’
Although Evos sold like hot cakes in Japan they remained rare in the UK, the sight of a near-factory-original IV like this being quite exceptional. As with the Subaru, its owner has been methodically returning it to standard spec, recently swapping aftermarket suspension for original struts the previous owner had thankfully retained. Only the original-equipment 16-inch OZ wheels really date it, the Evo V and VI that followed using the same basic foundations but adding bigger wheels, wheelarch flares and even more extreme aero.
It’s one thrilling car to drive and every bit as aggressive as the looks would suggest. From the inside the motor thrums flatly but the exhaust – an aftermarket one in this instance – crackles angrily, even at tickover. Everything happens fast in the Evo, too. The throttle picks up instantly, the steering is borderline hyperactive, and reactions to all inputs are urgent in the extreme. A relaxing machine it is not. Like all the cars here, its interior is plasticky but ergonomically spot-on, with a fantastic driving position, brilliantly positioned pedals and superb visibility. It feels tiny by modern standards, too.
It doesn’t roll like the Celica and there’s no need to drive around understeer as there is with the Impreza. Point the nose and it goes in an instant, goading you to jump on the throttle. While there is lag, the twin-scroll turbo spools-up quickly and the engine feels unburstable, revving out with the enthusiasm of a naturally aspirated screamer but with a thrilling forced-induction kick.
‘FANS COULD BUY A CAR THAT LOOKED AND SOUNDED LIKE COLIN McRAE’S FROM ANY SUBARU DEALER’
It’s the only one of the three you can instinctively steer on the throttle, its front-end bite and the influence of the electronically controlled Active Yaw Control rear diff rotating it into the turns on the power. It’s evident even on a dry road – on a wet surface it’s nothing short of extraordinary, the Evo carving diagonal lines out of turns with all four wheels straight. Just like a rally car. Because it is just like a rally car. Ford adopted – and massively hyped – a similar system for the recent Focus RS, but the Evo was doing it nearly two decades earlier.
This is but one example of how the ’90s rally replica template remains relevant to this day. Many mainstream performance hatchbacks have co-opted the basic format and run with it, even if many replace the diffs and other mechanical hardware with electronic simulations.
Accordingly, something like a Golf R offers 99% of what an Impreza or Evo could do but with an aspirational badge, socially acceptable looks, an automatic gearbox and Bluetooth connectivity for your phone. And for all their appeal, these cars demand a level of commitment most modern drivers simply-wouldn’t tolerate, be that the Impreza’s crazy low gearing, the Evo’s pitifully short range or the fact that even the Toyota needs an oil change every 4500 miles. Some might never be able to look beyond the stigma of driving a car that looks to have burst straight out of a mid-90s computer game or pages of a modding magazine, apparently raging against sensibilities both classic and contemporary. But as much as 1930s Deco embellishments, ’50s fins, ’60s chrome or ’70s kitsch speak of a place in time, so do wings, scoops and turbocharged excess. For a growing number of ’90s rally fans, that time is now.
THANKS TO David Crouch (Celica),Will Trent (Evo IV) and Chris Pedoe (Impreza); plus Dan Charman at Surrey Subarus (surreysubaruspecialists.com) and Toyota GB.
TOYOTA CELICA GT-FOUR (ST205)
The first true challenger to Lancia’s early dominance of Group A, the Celica led the charge of Japanese manufacturers into the WRC. All three versions – ST165, ST185 and ST205 – shared the same format of a transverse turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, MacPherson strut suspension and permanent four-wheel drive with a viscous centre coupling. Homologation versions of the ST205 seen here included hardware for the rally car’s anti-lag system and intercooler spray, plus bolt-in blocks to raise the rear wing. Costing £29,235 at launch in 1994, it was expensive and less powerful than rivals but the only one to be sold officially in the UK.
WRC Driver Championships 1990 (ST165), 1992, 1993, 1994 (ST185)
WRC Manufacturer Championships 1993, 1994 (ST185)
Key drivers Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen, Didier Auriol
Signature technology ‘Super Strut’ front suspension, plumbed-in anti-lag and intercooler spray systems
The ones to buy now ST185 Carlos Sainz Limited Edition, ST205 GT-Four WRC
SUBARU IMPREZA WRX STI
Simple, tough and charismatic, the Subaru Impreza’s rally success was a perfect fit for a brand defined by its four-wheel drive heritage. The basic template of a gutsy turbocharged four-cylinder boxer engine and permanent four-wheel drive was common to all, but Subaru spun endless variations off the same theme with a bewildering array of special editions. UK cars – known as the Impreza Turbo 2000 – were less exotic than the Japanese-market WRX and STI versions and had less power but were still wildly popular. Post-1997, Subaru rallied the two-door Impreza, and roadgoing versions such as the Prodrive-developed P1 and extreme, wide-arched 22B are now covetable classics.
WRC Driver Championships 1995
WRC Manufacturer Championships 1995, 1996, 1997
Key drivers Colin McRae, Kenneth Eriksson, Richard Burns
The ones to buy now UK-market Impreza Series McRae, P1, 22B or RB5; imported WRX Type RA STI Version II V-Limited or 22B
MITSUBISHI LANCER EVOLUTION IV
By some measure the most extreme of all the ’90s Japanese rally reps, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution combined huge power with wild-looking aero to dominate late-90s WRC. Its compact layout with a transverse 2.0-litre engine, twin-scroll turbo and high-tech Active Yaw Control rear diff gave it unprecedented agility and true throttle-steerability unique for a four-wheel-drive car, though the rally cars used a simpler mechanical set-up. Unlike Toyota and Subaru, the Evo remained a Japanese Domestic Market rarity, Mitsubishi eventually bowing to demand and bringing limited numbers of the Evo VI into the UK through its Ralliart operation. The Tommi Mäkinen Edition of the same is regarded as the ultimate and values are skyrocketing.
WRC Driver Championships 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999
WRC Manufacturer Championships 1998
Key drivers Tommi Mäkinen, Richard Burns
The ones to buy now Evolution V, Evolution VI Tommi Mäkinen Edition
1994 Toyota Celica GT-Four (ST205)
Engine 1988cc four-cylinder, DOHC, turbocharged, fuel-injected
Max Power 239bhp @ 6000rpm
Max Torque 223lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, permanent four-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: MacPherson ‘Super Strut’, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: MacPherson strut with longitudinal ‘tension struts’, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs with ABS
Top speed 153mph
1997 Subaru Impreza WRX Type RA STI Version III
Engine 1994cc four-cylinder boxer, DOHC per bank, turbocharged, fuel-injected
Max Power 276bhp @ 6500rpm
Max Torque 253lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, permanent four-wheel drive with adjustable centre differential
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: MacPherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: MacPherson strut with trailing link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs, no ABS
Top speed 148mph
1997 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IV GSR
Engine 1997cc four-cylinder, DOHC, turbocharged, fuel-injected
Max Power 276bhp @ 6500rpm
Max Torque 260lb ft@ 3000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, permanent four-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion, hydraulically assisted
Suspension Front: MacPherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar. Rear: multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes Discs with ABS
Top speed 142mph