Ferrari 348ts vs. Honda NSX, Lotus Esprit GT3, Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964, Toyota Supra and TVR Griffith 4.0

Tim Andrew & Drive-My

Performance superheroes – 1990s showdown reveals a surprising best buy. Japan takes on the Euro kings of the super-coupé. COVER The Big Test Japan dared to challenge the performance car establishment during the Nineties. We pit the Honda NSX, Toyota Supra and Nissan 300ZX against the Ferrari 348, Lotus. Let battle commence. The Nineties played host to a worldwide dogfight for performance car superhero status. We hit the tarmac to see which flight highest. Plus: our writer tested all these cars in period – what can he recall of them? Words John Simister. Photography Tim Andrew.


The Nineties. It’s when things started getting modern, when the seeds were sown for the designs, the technology, the materials and the manufacturing methods we have today. The decade might have begun a quarter of a century ago but none of the cars you see here looks drastically dated. At least not to this writer, who tested them all when they were new. Maybe it’s my brain that has dated in the intervening years. We’re about to find out.


Ferrari 348ts vs. Honda NSX, Lotus Esprit GT3, Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964, Toyota Supra and TVR Griffith 4.0

Ferrari 348ts vs. Honda NSX, Lotus Esprit GT3, Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964, Toyota Supra and TVR Griffith 4.0

These are seven of the most thrilling sporting cars you could buy in the Nineties. Back then their purchase prices ranged from £25,795 to £69,499; today you can bag the cheapest for as little as £10,000 or pay up to £70,000 for the most expensive. We have a straight-four, a straight-six, a flat-six, two V6s and two V8s. Three of the engines are in the nose, three are mid-mounted, one is in the tail. Two are British, one is German, one is Italian – and three are Japanese, with two of them unjustly starved of recognition in the classic car world as most examples get sucked into the modification culture. Together these cars make a fascinating bunch, every one of them chasing a different route to driving thrills.

Please meet, then, a Nissan 300ZX rubbing shoulders with a Ferrari 348. A TVR Griffith, mechanically the polar opposite of a Porsche 911 Carrera 2. A Lotus Esprit GT3 from a firm obsessed with lightness vying with a Honda NSX made of aluminium. And a front-engined, rear-wheel drive, straight-six-powered GT whose credentials could almost shout ‘old-school Brit’ but is a twin-turbo Toyota Supra. Join us at the former RAF Coltishall air base, now the Scottow Enterprise Park, and let the dogfights commence.

“This is a fascinating bunch, each one chasing a different route to driving thrills”

 

FERRARI 348 TS

We’re straight in with the most glamorous name of all and the most expensive car, then and now. Although of roughly similar size to the 328 that it replaced, if broader, the 348 looks almost the mini- Testarossa with all those strakes along the flanks and across the tail. Some thought them brash at the time, but the years have treated them well. This is a crisp, clean, dramatic Ferrari; by comparison, it’s today’s Ferrari range that looks contrived and overstyled.

The 348 used a development of the 328 engine enlarged to 3.4 litres and mounted longitudinally instead of transversely, Dinofashion, as it was in the 328. The gearbox remained transverse, now sitting under the shaft linking the crankshaft and the remote clutch/ flywheel assembly. This gives a lower centre of gravity and should make for a sweeter-handling Ferrari. Does it? Press reports from the early drive in late 1989, and longer road tests from 1990, enthused about the 348’s pace, soundtrack, dry-road grip and sense of occasion. But they also said that, pushed to the limit, the 348 could snap into a tailslide a mere mortal would find hard to undo.

Here at Scottow there’s just been a downpour, and the 348’s reputation is taking centre stage in my brain. First impressions are of a typical Ferrari open-gate gearchange – stiff if you’re timid with it, responsive to a firm hand and accurate revs-matching in a way that cajoles you into driving with a properly sensitive touch. The Momo steering wheel is oddly far from the vertical and the pedals are offset far to the left. You adapt to the Ferrari, not it to you.


Ferrari 348ts

Ferrari 348ts road test

The engine revs with instant, whooping zeal, and drops revs as quickly when you lift off so you’d better be accurate with those downchange blips. We’ve just blazed along the runway, leaving a sound trail of stereophonic straight-fours rather than a V8 crackle – that’s the flat-plane crankshaft shouting. Now the sharp right turn, the steering’s initially slow response compounded by the slight slippage of understeer. Power on harder, and the 348 is jinking from side to side as the grip changes, the steering tugs, the tail wriggles. I sense that too much speed into a soaking bend will see ends swapped; this a highly-strung, nervous machine in these conditions. What wide-tyred semi-supercar wouldn’t be? Great brakes, though.

Back at base, time for a calmer look at the surroundings. The cabin is a riot of cream and black, the switchgear is Fiat-flavoured. In this ‘ts’ version the roof panel unclips and is stored behind the seats; owner Steve Target reckons there’s barely any more structural shudder thus de-roofed. The 348 is an exciting Ferrari, no doubt about that. But I remember feeling a lot less fear when I drove a 355 – fundamentally a debugged 348 with a stiffer structure and eight extra valves – back in the day.

I OWN THE 348TS

Ferrari aficionado Steve Target has owned it for two years. ‘I had a 308 GT4 before this for 13 years, but this car will be a keeper. I go for the unloved Ferraris – if it had a bad press when new, I’d go for it.

‘Already I’ve done more miles in it than I did in the GT4, and I try to get to every Ferrari Owners’ Club area meeting. For maintenance I take it to Lancasters at Colchester, an official Ferrari dealer. I’m very happy with them – they even took the engine out to cure a leaking oil seal after I’d bought it.

‘Otherwise the only problem has been a common one – water leaks at the front corners of the roof. ‘I’ve been hooked on Ferraris since I was six or seven, after watching Tony Curtis and his Dino in The Persuaders. ‘I’m obsessed, really.’

‘I sense that too much speed into a soaking bend will see ends swapped’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS FERRARI 348TS

Engine Mid-mounted, 3405cc, V8, dohc per bank, 32 valves, Bosch Motronic fuel injection

Power and torque 300bhp @ 7200rpm; 238lb ft @ 4200rpm / DIN

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion

Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Brakes Ventilated discs front and rear

Weight 1465kg (3226lb)

Performance Top speed: 163mph; 0-60mph: 5.6sec

Fuel consumption 18mpg

Cost new £69,499 (1990)

Values now £22,000-£35,000


MY 1990 MEMORY: ‘Exploring Oxfordshire B-roads after a Ferrari press lunch. Something about its balance and feedback made me not want to push it too far’ Writer John Simister has been a professional road tester for more than 25 years.


Ferrari 348ts
Ferrari 348ts interior and engine. The 348’s reputation for knife-edge handling in the wet is deserved. 3.4-litre V8 delivers its punch at a screaming 7000rpm. Any 348 driver must adapt to steeply raked steering wheel and offset pedals.


 

HONDA NSX

Honda was big in Formula One (and is trying to be so again) so why shouldn’t it create its own take on the junior-Ferrari idea? Being a Honda, from a company infused equally with petrolheadedness and rationality, the almost-supercar had to be as easy to drive as a Civic, with a cabin as ergonomically proper and engineered to volume-production standards. That didn’t stop the NSX being a technological trailblazer – here is the world’s first production car with an all-pressed-aluminium monococque, with aluminium suspension parts to match.

See how low it is, the visually separate black roof emphasising the shallowness of the red hull below. The tail looks a touch too long but it houses a very useful boot. The V6 engine is mounted transversely, the gearbox mounted not under it, old-Ferrari-fashion, but on one end like a modern hatchback’s. There’s the full Honda gamut of variable timing and lift for the valves, and a variableresonance intake plenum.

Gordon Murray was famously taken with the NSX and it influenced aspects of his McLaren F1, yet despite its aluminium content the Honda is no lightweight at nearly 1.4 tonnes. Ayrton Senna, too, was famously involved with the NSX’s development. He briefly drove this very car, the oldest NSX in the United Kingdom, the 20th NSX made and the only one on a G-plate, and his nephew and fellow racing driver Bruno has signed the underside of the bootlid.


Honda NSX Automatic road test

Honda NSX Automatic road test

These facts make up for the less welcome one that this NSX is an automatic, with a four-speed, torque-converter gearbox matched to an engine deprived of 19bhp. However, there’s still 256bhp left to play with, controlled (as in the manual) by the first production use of a drive-by-wire throttle.

And no harm is done to the Honda’s fine ride and handling. Sitting low, with a panoramic view ahead (behind, too, through the hinged rear window that doubles as an engine cover) and chilled by excellent air-conditioning, you feel part of the car, the initial sense that the steering is slow to respond around the centre soon washed away by the understanding that everything in the NSX feels precise and ultra-progressive.

The steering has gentle power assistance but still telegraphs an intimate picture of grip, the ride is supple, and the handling feels beautifully balanced. I know that the tail will eventually let go and is hard to retrieve, because it once happened to me on Honda’s Motegi test track, but there’s none of the nervousness that troubles the Ferrari.

The engine and transmission are no more than adequate in this company, feeling a bit flat despite an ability to breach 90mph in second gear with a hearty yowl.

A manual NSX is another matter, its madly revvable motor the gateway to near-Ferrari thrills and a whole lot more sophistication. And it’s more the pity that the UK never got the magnificent NSX Type-R. One of those may well have won this test by some considerable margin.


LOOK AFTER THE NSX

Jason Ryder works with John White at the Honda UK press fleet garage. ‘We believe this NSX was the first one in the UK. It was a press car at first, then it was used for training dealer technicians, mostly on the automatic transmission. After that it just sat outside, getting damaged by the sun. It was due to be crushed but Paul Ormond, head of the press office, rescued it and put it back in the control of the press fleet team.

‘It had done just 500 miles when we started restoring it, although you’d never have guessed from looking at it. We retrimmed all the leather and the headlining, and there were various electrical faults to trace. They’d been put there deliberately for training, and forgotten about. It took a summer to restore. And even now it’s still only done just under 19,000 miles.’

‘Sitting low, with a panoramic view ahead, you feel part of the car’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS HONDA NSX

Engine Mid-mounted, 2977cc, V6, dohc per bank, 24 valves, Honda PGM-Fi fuel injection

Power and torque 256bhp @ 6800rpm; 209lb ft @ 5400rpm / DIN

Transmission Four-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Brakes Ventilated discs front and rear, ABS

Weight 1370kg (3018lb)

Performance Top speed: 155mph; 0-60mph: 6.8sec

Fuel consumption 21mpg

Cost new £58,000 (1991)

Values now £16,500-£32,500

{module Honda Acura NSX Mk1}


 

MY 1993 MEMORY: ‘ Getting to 130mph at the end if the Millbrook test track’s acceleration straight, and nearly not making the following bend’


Honda NSX Automatic road test

Honda NSX Automatic road test. Automatic gearbox robs 3.0-litre V6 of 19bhp. Subtly styled NSX has aged better than the extrovert 348. Ayrton Senna-tuned chassis makes the Honda fizz where the 348 falters. Tactile interior makes you feel part of the action.


 

LOTUS ESPRIT GT3

This shape of Lotus Esprit ran from 1987 to the breed’s demise in 2004, with just a few visual tweaks on the way.

In the mid-Nineties came the Julian Thomson/Russell Carrpenned update of Peter Stevens’ 1987 redesign, and it coincided with some fresh focusing on the four-cylinder Esprits following the earlier launch of the V8.

One of the revitalised four-pot models was the car you see here, intended as an entry-level Esprit with its capacity reduced from 2.2 litres back to the 2.0 litres with which the original Giugiaro-styled Esprit started life back in 1976.

This pared-back GT3 is 90kg lighter than the S4-spec model, and does without that car’s interior wood trim embellishment and reclining seats. The seats here are one-piece mouldings, and the décor is in racily functional black and body-colour bright yellow. Sometimes, though, less is more. Here was an Esprit truer than any other to Lotus’s racing roots, with a sub-£40k price tag and a single-minded air of speedy purpose. This one has the wheels and round rear lights from a late V8, but the GT3 character remains resolutely intact. It’s a car that demands you work at it, but which will thrill you when you do.


Lotus Esprit GT3 road test

Lotus Esprit GT3 road test

Its engine offers 240bhp, compared with the contemporary 2.2’s 264bhp. And it’s coy about revealing itself at first, feeling lifeless as I amble off on a light throttle, to the extent that I wonder if there’s a fuel blockage somewhere. Then at around 3500rpm, throttle well open, the charge-cooled turbo wakes up and the Lotus starts to run. At around 4000rpm it’s breathing lustily and accelerating savagely enough to humble our Ferrari, its engine note a straightforward four-cylinder blare.

So the drivers need to keep the engine busy, which means much use of a gearchange that’s a bit obstreperous in this car but I remember as delightful when the GT3 was new.


Lotus Esprit GT3 road test

Lotus Esprit GT3 road test

And then there’s the fabulous chassis to enjoy – Lotus magic at its best. The GT3 rides with a deft delicacy, steers with a speed and precision that’s disconcerting on first acquaintance (it’s powered, slightly too much so at low road speeds) but delicious as pace rises, and has a transparently brilliant balance through fast bends or slow ones. You know exactly what’s going on, always, and there’s no better way of gaining confidence in a rapid car.

Back in the Nineties the GT3 was the cheapest route on offer to supercar thrills at sensible money, and the same holds true today. More than that, for pure driving fun this cheapest Esprit might just be the best Esprit of all.

But think on this. I drove the GT3 immediately after the 348. In the Lotus, the track might just as well have been dry, so speedy, grippy, stable and benign did it feel.

Does that make it the best driving machine here today? In some ways, it surely does.


I OWN THE GT3

Owen Wright has owned this car for eight years. ‘I use it every day unless it’s snowing. It had done 65,000 miles when I bought it and it’s up to 92,000. It’s a myth Lotuses always have problems – the only ones it has had have been the age-related issues you’d have with any 18-year-old car.

‘The steering rack wore out, and I had to replace the costly oil cooler because an aluminium pipe corroded. That was a fiddly job, but changing the cambelt was easy, as was the exhaust manifold. It has a few modifications, such as uprated bushes and a performance exhaust, and I’ll take the engine out next year to restore the engine bay and replace the clutch.

‘I’ve loved Esprits since childhood, when Colin Chapman signed my Esprit sketch, and I had the James Bond bug. So after I had a ride in the James Bond Esprit at 14 years old I had to have one.’

‘For pure driving fun this cheapest Esprit might just be the best Esprit of all’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS LOTUS ESPRIT GT3

Engine Mid-mounted, 1973cc, inline 4-cyl, dohc, 16 valves, AC Delco fuel injection and turbocharger

Power and torque 240bhp @ 6250rpm; 216lb ft @ 3750rpm / DIN

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: double transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Brakes Ventilated discs front and rear, ABS

Weight 1229kg (2707lb)

Performance Top speed: 164mph; 0-60mph: 5.1sec

Fuel consumption 22mpg

Cost new £39,450 (1996)

Values now £12,000-£20,000

{module Lotus Esprit Club}


Lotus Esprit GT3 road test

Lotus Esprit GT3 road test. Turbocharged four-cylinder angrily discharges 240bhp. GT3’s fine-tuned fingertip feedback brings a smile, even in the wet. Tricky gearshift the only detractor from pure driving pleasure.


MY 1997 MEMORY:Several sublime laps of Castle Combe circuit on a Car magazine handling test day’

 

NISSAN 300 ZX TWIN TURBO Z32

Nowadays there’s a branch of the fast-car culture besotted with Nissan GT-Rs. Back in the Nineties, though, these turbo terrors were almost unknown here in the UK. The Nissan Skyline GT-R was a rare and exotic fruit indeed, almost unknown outside Japan. What we did have, though, was the Nissan 300ZX, once a flabby cruiser, re-minted for the new decade as something tantalisingly close to a proper supercar. It even looked almost mid-engined.

The motoring press loved it, with reservations. Now, in 2015, where have they all gone? Many were modified to death, sufficiently so to keep the breed well off the radar in our world of classic cars. It’s time to put that right.

As standard, the ZX offers 300bhp from its 3.0-litre, twin-turbo V6. Its sophisticated suspension adds extra toe-control links to what is otherwise broadly a double-wishbone layout, and at the rear those links vary in length automatically to give a small degree of rear-wheel steering. Turn into a bend and the rear wheels point in the opposite direction to the fronts, changing to a same-direction point as the Nissan settles. How much this happens, and when the change occurs, is computer-controlled according to how you’re driving. The idea is to give this big, heavy car (it’s the portliest car here) the agility of something much handier.


Nissan 300ZX road test

Nissan 300ZX road test

Does it? Well, yes – up to a point. Driven at moderate pace, this is a benign car if a rather inert one as the rear-steer nips tyre slipangles in the bud. However, a sudden surge of turbocharger boost can overwhelm these good manners, with contemporary road-tests regularly reporting ready – but thankfully easily caught – tail slides on damp or greasy roads.

So I’m treading carefully in our test example, a Japanese grey import in stunning condition. Its specification differs from that of UK-market cars only in details such as indicator-lens positioning and the nose badge, while this particular car has bigger wheels covering uprated brakes. It also has lower-riding and slightly stiffer springs and dampers, although the 300ZX is already quite firm in standard specification.


Nissan 300ZX road test

Nissan 300ZX road test

Its cabin is a temple of velour, extending even to the glovebox lid. Neat rotary switchpods flank the instruments, all is snug and driver-focused, and you can remove the two roof panels to make a T-bar targa-top. There’s even space for two small people in the back, but claustrophobics need not apply. The Nissan feels on the acceptable side of firm as I head out to the track, but the firmness isn’t matched by responsive precision. At low speeds this feels the weighty machine it is.

Out on the track this feeling is dispelled as the turbochargers spin into life. It’s more of an insistent thrust build-up than the feeling of being fired from a catapult, but this is a properly rapid car whose power keeps building right up to 6400rpm.

Driving the 300ZX is more about flow than flinging it into corners, but as a rapid and civilised grand tourer the Nissan is something of a forgotten star.

Badge snobs, please remove your head from the sand right now.


I OWN THE 300ZX

This is the second one Joel Pickering has owned. ‘I’ve had it for nine years, but I’ve liked them since I was a young boy.

They were readily available when I bought it but a lot rarer now. ‘I’ve been aiming for an OEM-plus approach, close to standard but improving it where needed. There’s a big engine in a small space so they overheat, so this one has an uprated aluminium radiator. I’ve also added a strut brace, which makes a big difference, and uprated Brembo brakes from a Skyline GT-R. The original rear spoiler had gloss paint on sponge rubber, which cracked after two years. So this is a glassfibre replica.

‘Why do I like them? It’s the aesthetics and the performance. You can easily get 400bhp with larger turbo compressor wheels and better breathing.’

‘This is a properly rapid car whose power keeps building right up to 6400rpm’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS NISSAN 300ZX TWIN TURBO Z32

Engine Front-mounted, 2960cc, V6-cyl, dohc per bank, 24 valves, Nissan ECCS fuel injection, twin turbochargers

Power and torque 300bhp @ 6400rpm; 274lb ft @ 3600rpm / DIN

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted, plus rear-wheel steering

Suspension Front and rear: multiple links with toe control, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar Brakes Ventilated discs front and rear, ABS

Weight 1580kg (3480lb)

Performance Top speed: 155mph; 0-60mph: 5.6sec

Fuel consumption 18mpg

Cost new £34,600 (1990)

Values now £3000-£10,000


Nissan 300ZX road test

Nissan 300ZX road test. Twin-turbo V6 good for a Porschepounding 300bhp. The 300ZX can’t match the track-honed Esprit, but it’s a mighty A-road performer. Austere interior is a delight for velour lovers. Thuggish looks match the 300ZX’s zeal for chomping the horizon.


MY 1990 MEMORY: ‘ Driving one that was so new it didn’t have numberplates, so we invented a number and made some up’

 

PORSCHE 911 CARRERA 2 964

Porsche-fanciers call it the 964. Whatever you call it, this is the last of the original-shape, air-cooled 911s. Nevertheless, it was a major update on its ‘impact bumper’ predecessor.

Out went torsion bars, in came coil springs. The steering got gentle power assistance, the differential got a limited-slip system using an electronically controlled clutch, and the rounded, integrated bumper design showed shades of Porsche’s ultimate Eighties pin-up, the 959. The brash whale-tale spoiler option was history, replaced by a neat, retractable ducktail that self-elevated at more than 50mph. The engine grew from 3.2 to exactly 3.6 litres, power from 231bhp to a tidy 250.

There was more. The 964 appeared first in Carrera 4 guise, with a four-wheel-drive system derived from the 959’s. When the Carrera 2 followed later the same year (1989), it could be had with – shock – a four-speed, torque-converter automatic transmission with Tiptronic manual override (‘tip’ being German for ‘flick’).

The critics wrote glowingly of the clever Tiptronic with its pushpull lever. Today it seems slow-witted and lacking in ratios compared with a modern double-clutch arrangement (also a Porsche invention, for competition use), so I’m very pleased that our test 964 is a manual car.


Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964

Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964 road test

And what a lovely, precise, slippery-smooth manual it is. Were you to get straight into a 964 after a late impact-bumper car it’s the first thing you’d notice, even though the G50 gearbox (itself a vast improvement over the earlier 915 unit) was carried over. It’s amazing what a few tweaks to the control mechanism can do.

Otherwise, the environment is very familiar with its five round dashboard dials centred on the hefty tachometer, the floor-hinged pedals offset even further leftwards than the steering wheel, the view forward through the deep, upright windscreen and past the prominent front wings. The very instant I move off I can sense the weight aft, just from the way the front bobs lightly over bumps, but out on the rain-soaked track at speed I quickly realise that this is one well-mannered 911.

The usual traits of prodigious traction and the gentle tugging of the steering wheel over uneven surfaces are still there, but compared with its ancestors the 964 is a calmer, more planted machine that encourages you to explore its abilities without a backdrop of fear. There’s less understeer on a slow, slippery corner, less of a feeling that the tail might break free under big power or a sudden lift-off.

The main reason why is that clever differential, effectively an early form of what we now call torque vectoring. Rear suspension geometry and bushing able to give more toe-in under cornering loads helps, too. And it almost goes without saying that the Carrera 2 is a sensationally rapid machine.

It all adds up to perhaps the most appealing air-cooled 911 of the lot, with just enough new-school to rose-tint the old-school, and I curse myself for not snapping one up when they were still cheap. Now the world is waking up to its charms. About time, too.


I OWN THE 964

Robert Lancaster- Gaye bought it from Porsche specialist JZ Machtech. ‘It had done 130,000 miles, but it’s effectively zero because they’d gone through everything. And I mean everything: pipes, bushes, brakes, engine, gearbox, paint… It’s like a new car.

‘The previous owner had all this done, and then didn’t use it. I saw it in the showroom and couldn’t believe the condition, because Carrera 2s often look slightly tired. Rejuvenating one like that is expensive, so it’s best to buy one on which someone has spent money.

The only non-standard bit is the “Cup bypass” – the removal of the big silencer behind the bumper. It’s noisy so I think I’ll put it back.

‘I’ve always wanted a 964 because it’s the last proper aircooled 911 – the 993 doesn’t count with that different body shape.’

‘It’s a calmer machine that encourages you to explore its abilities without fear’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS PORSCHE 911 CARRERA 2 964

Engine Rear-mounted, 3600cc, flat-6-cyl, sohc per bank, 12 valves, Bosch DME L-jetronic fuel injection

Power and torque 250bhp @ 6100rpm; 229lb ft @ 4800rpm / DIN

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel-drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, lower wishbones, anti-roll bar. Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Brakes Discs all round, ventilated at front

Weight 1380kg (3040lb)

Performance Top speed: 158mph; 0-60mph: 5.1sec

Fuel consumption 20mpg

Cost new £41,505 (1989)

Values now £12,000-£30,000

{module Porsche 964}


Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964

Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964. Increase of 400cc helped the 964 to ten per cent more power than its predecessor. Clever suspension layout makes the 964 more predictable to drive fast. Under its mildly restyled exterior the 964 generation saw radical changes.  Evolution rather than revolution inside – so pedals and wheel are still offset.


MY 1989 MEMORY: ‘Narrowly avoiding an overloaded Trabant at a German autobahn intersection on the press launch, just after the Berlin Wall came down’

 

TOYOTA SUPRA

As with the Nissan 300ZX, so too with the Toyota Supra – big six-cylinder bruisers both, but reinvented as Europe-battling, turbopowered semi-supercars for the Nineties. Both have stayed outside the normal evolutionary route to classic-car status, instead arriving in 2015 via the world of a modification culture that has seen both cars generate stupendous power figures. Then, with your retroglasses donned, you look at the Supra and wonder: why? Aren’t 326bhp, 155mph and a 5.1-second scorch to 60mph enough? It took some searching, but we found a standard, UK-market example for this story, just like the car I tested for Carweek in 1993.

Toyota made big efforts to pare weight from this Supra, with aluminium used for the bonnet and some suspension components and – yes – hollow carpet fibres. The styling was a good launchpad for the modded culture to come with a gaping mouth, glittery projector-lens headlights under large covers and a hefty hoop of a rear spoiler standing proudly above two strips of four circular rear lights. There are air ducts ahead of each rear wheel, the better to cool the Torsen differential, and the six-speed gearbox is a joint Toyota/Getrag production with a mechanically meaty action.

 


Toyota Supra road test

Toyota Supra road test

The straight-six, twin-cam engine has twin sequentially acting turbos and a secondary throttle butterfly whose closure is triggered by a primordial traction-control system. Like the Nissan and the Porsche this is a two-plus-two coupé, and the sweeping arc of an instrument panel seems inspired by a 911’s scattergun ergonomics.

In that Carweek test, pitted against a manual Honda NSX, the Toyota showed a very physical approach to driving thrills compared with the Honda’s more cerebral nature. Nothing has changed; the Supra’s ample grip readily gives way to a benign tail-slither if suitably coaxed on a wet track, while the sonorous engine delivers a true torrent of torque. Its initial response is quite soft and sleepy, but then turbo one awakes and serious thrust ensues.

Come 4000rpm or so, plus a wide-open throttle, and turbo number two – rather larger than turbo one – joins in, and from that point there’s little that can stay with it as it soars on towards 7000rpm. Yet still people wanted it to go faster… and in doing so, they probably spoiled the delightfully progressive blending of its two turbos’ efforts that make the Supra such a friendly machine to drive, far friendlier than its bulk and power potential suggest it’ll be. Balancing this car on the throttle through a fast bend is terrific fun, helped by quick steering for quick correction should the drift get out of hand. I noted a lack of intimate road feel through that steering back in 1993, but by today’s standards of electrically assisted, synthetic weighting it’s positively garrulous.

Brand perception, car culture and the automotive circles in which we move are powerful forces in shaping a car’s desirability. They can trump the car itself – otherwise why would anyone have bought a Porsche 928 for £32,000 more than a Supra? Forgotten heroes are the victim of no greater amnesia than this one.


I OWN THE SUPRA

Anthony Woolford has had an automatic one since 2008, and this lower-mileage manual one came up in 2012. ‘I found it by accident online and couldn’t believe the price.

‘The idea was to replace the blue automatic but I seem to have ended up keeping both.

‘One front wing has been painted after a scratch, but otherwise it’s all original. Even the leather upholstery isn’t worn. The only non-standard part is a replacement intercooler from Whifbitz. It doesn’t give any more power, but it’s better made than the original part and costs £300 instead of £600.

‘Why a Supra? I’ve always liked Hondas and still have a CRX, and I’ve got into Japanese cars through that. People don’t seem to know about the Mk4 Supra, but it’s just brilliant.’

‘The Supra’s ample grip readily gives way to a benign tail-slither if suitably coaxed’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS TOYOTA SUPRA

Engine Front-mounted, 2997cc, inline 6-cyl, dohc, 24 valves, Toyota fuel injection, twin sequential turbochargers

Power and torque 326bhp @ 5600rpm; 325lb ft @ 4800rpm / DIN

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, antiroll Bar

Brakes Ventilated discs front and rear, ABS

Weight 1549kg (3412lb)

Performance Top speed: 155mph, 0-60mph: 5.1sec

Fuel consumption 19mpg

Cost new £37,500 (1993)

Values now £3000-£10,000


Toyota Supra road test

Toyota Supra road test. The Supra has a 76bhp advantage over the 964 but is no quicker.  Supra styling shouts performance. It follows through on its threat. Wraparound dash puts you at the centre of the action. Thunderous pace awaits when you waken the Hitachi sequential Turbochargers.


MY 1993 MEMORY: ‘ Experiencing, on Salisbury Plain, the second-biggest turbo powerslide of my life, the Lotus Carlton having provided the biggest’

 

TVR GRIFFITH 4.0

TVR’s reinvention began right here. It was out with the wedges and the retro re-makes, in with a shape of rounded, unadorned purity and tension at once both redolent of a Fifties sports-racer and a crisp, clean, single-minded future vision – the Griffith had no bumpers and almost-hidden door handles.

Underneath lay the familiar Rover V8, in 4.0, 4.3 or – later – 5.0-litre guise, cradled in a hefty tubular-steel chassis. All-round double-wishbone suspension completed a familiar TVR mechanical cocktail, but it was the combination of the looks, the sound and the polished edges of what could have been a rough diamond that cemented the TVR’s appeal. It was a triumph, its credibility boosted all the more by the near-flawless, ripple-free finish to the glassfibre body.

That design flair continued in the cabin. Dashboard, door trims and console swept curvingly across their domains, but nothing was overdone. Aluminium door handles flanked the centre console in a typical TVR trick of the unexpected, matching the ball of the gearlever knob and – in the early 4.0-litre example we have here – a handbrake grip shaped to interface perfectly with your left hand’s fingers and thumb. This last is a period aftermarket addition, but it’s right on message with the TVR vibe.


TVR Griffith 4.0 V8 road test

TVR Griffith 4.0 V8 road test

This is our only true convertible here, with a flexible rear-roof section that folds down once the rigid front section has been detached and stowed in the boot. It’s a neat, simple design, a neatness that’s continued in the engine bay with its tidy plumbing and an exhaust system determinedly directing its gases around the front of the engine via pipework that’s redolent of a Victorian heating installation.

As you might expect, the TVR feels more the raw sports car than anything else in this group. It’s the lightest by some considerable margin, yet it has an ample 240bhp to propel it. This may be the Griffith in its gentlest guise but it’s still great for a sub-five-second eruption to 60mph. And it sounds absolutely fabulous, the 4.0-litre V8 bellowing its beat as the wind blows by.


TVR Griffith 4.0 V8 road test

TVR Griffith 4.0 V8 road test

With the brawny performance comes the need for more physical effort than in the other cars, notably to turn the unassisted steering at low speeds, to disengage the clutch and to shift the short, stubby gearlever through its five forward ratios.

Sat low and snug in the agreeable cockpit, the rear axle just inches from my bottom, I cease to be aware of all these efforts as the acceleration blasts forth, immediately giving me a sense of what it might be like to drive a dragster.

It’s a wholly addictive sensation, as is the one of powering into a corner, aiming with millimetre-perfect accuracy through steering that is now ideally weighted and communicating furiously, and feeling the tail right on the edge of a lovely, power-induced drift. This is how powerful sports cars are meant to be.

And then, just as we were taking the very last photographs of our two-seater, open-top sports car, the sun finally came out to greet us. Is this an omen?


I OWN THE GRIFFITH

Steve Ashton has done lots to his Griffith. ‘I probably didn’t need to. I think of it as future-proofing. For example, TVR Power had a special offer on so I had the engine rebuilt with a mildly upgraded camshaft and stainless steel manifolds, and I’ve replaced the suspension and brakes. The standard brakes are terrible so it now has the bigger ones fitted to the Griffith 500.

‘The chassis outriggers corrode so they have been done. You don’t have to take the body off but it’s better if you do. David Gerald Sports Cars did it and replaced the fuel lines at the same time. I’ve replaced the dashboard panel with a new one in piano black, and now there’s nothing left to do.

‘I’ve had no problems that you wouldn’t expect from a 23-year-old car, like the odd corroded switch contact. I’ve had it 14 years, and have no intention of ever selling it.’

‘The looks, sound and polished edges cemented the TVR’s appeal’


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS TVR GRIFFITH 4.0

Engine Front-mounted, 3947cc, V8-cyl, pushrod ohv, 16 valves, Lucas 14CUX fuel injection

Power and torque 240bhp @ 5300rpm; 275lb ft @ 3900rpm / DIN

Transmission Five-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion

Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar on front only

Brakes Discs all round, ventilated at front

Weight 1045kg (2302lb)

Performance Top speed: 148mph, 0-60mph: 4.9sec

Fuel consumption 20mpg

Cost new £25,795 (1992)

Values now £8750-£15,000


TVR Griffith 4.0 V8 road test

TVR Griffith 4.0 V8 road test. Lightweight body means you’ll be kissing 60mph in less than five seconds. Flamboyant interior makes you feel special even before you set off.  4.0-litre V8 summons 240bhp with addictive thunder. The TVR Griffith was staggeringly adept at brightening up your day in the Nineties. It still is now.


MY 1992 MEMORY: ‘ Taking a very early road-test example home for the weekend and demonstrating it to a car-nut friend, who was lost for words’

 

VERDICT

TVR owner Steve Ashton summed it up well. ‘We’re all agreed that even though we’ve come here with our own cars, there’s not a single car here we wouldn’t want to take home.’ Badge-snobbery out, automotive appreciation in. Picking a winner, however, is harder. I can readily come up with a top four, which would be a top five were the NSX a manual. Which means that, for me, the edgy Ferrari doesn’t quite do it as a driving machine when I could have the more capable Lotus for a third of the outlay. And the Nissan 300 ZX, future-facing techno-marvel that is, falls short on the complete thrills package.

So, the four. The Toyota? I have a big soft spot for this scandalously underrated machine, a car you could use every day and relish every mile of the using. Does it matter that it’s ‘just’ a Toyota? It shouldn’t. But, despite my attempts at objectivity, it does, just a bit. Hoist by my own petard.

The Lotus, then. Magnificent handling and ride, as much pace as you could reasonably want, the bonus of having proved more durable over two decades than I expected. And nowadays such a bargain. But not as much so as the viscerally enthralling TVR, which has also aged more gracefully than we would ever have guessed back in 1992.


 Ferrari 348ts vs. Honda NSX, Lotus Esprit GT3, Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964, Toyota Supra and TVR Griffith 4.0

Ferrari 348ts vs. Honda NSX, Lotus Esprit GT3, Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964, Toyota Supra and TVR Griffith 4.0

But in the end you can’t escape the fact that the best car here, for its combination of pace, excitement, usability, durability, cachet, investment potential and all the rest, is the Porsche 911 Carrera 2 964. It’s just a pity they’ve got so expensive. Which us why the car I’ve been entering in the website classifieds’ search is the TVR Griffith…


Thanks to Scottow Enterprise Park, Honda UK, the TVR Car Club, the Toyota Enthusiasts’ Club, the Lotus Forums, the Ferrari Owners’ Club, 300zx.co.uk and all the owners.

‘Badge-snobbery out, automotive appreciation in. Picking a winner, however, is harder’


 

Which would you choose? Let us know.

{CONTENTPOLL [“id”: 120]}


 

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